Justin and Tariq

In three thousand rides, I’ve never kicked anyone out of my Uber.  I carry no weapons, no pepper spray, not even a strobing LED penlight, like the bouncers use to disorient testosterone-raging patrons. I have no dash cam.

Perhaps I’m shooting dice with fate. Or just rather blessed. Or possessed of a sublimely American faith in my fellow man. But I drive bareback, and so far it has served me well.

No man has tried to grab my steering wheel while driving on the freeway, praise Jesus, on the 110, down in the luge run south of USC, at late-night velocity. Can you imagine the sphincter-clenching craziness?

Women break the rules in rideshare, not men. Because they can.  They jump over the back seat to engage you in conversation.  They shriek in the middle of chaotic intersections, posing for selfies. They demand to be taken to the Taco Bell drive-thru. They put their hand on your arm, and say “you think I’m pretty, right? Right?”  

They fall asleep with their dress hiked over their hips, and don’t respond when you tell them they’re home, leaving you to decide whether to ‘nudge’ them awake, with all the potential liability that might entail.  They grab the aux cord and volume control and play their jams.  They stand with the door open, talking with their friends, causing traffic jams in front of nightclubs. They refuse to leave the car.   They overshare. They interrogate you with intimately personal questions.

None of them have reached for the wheel, however.  Deep in the limbic brain, they know not to.

So what to make of tragic, doe-eyed, all-American Justin Lavelle cruelly ejected from a Lyft on the Harbor Freeway by swarthy, villainous Tariq Rasheed, after being pepper-sprayed (allegedly) because he grabbed the steering wheel (allegedly) while having a panic attack, which he was prone to, though there is no way of knowing he was actually having at that moment?  Justin was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking along the shoulder, sobbing on the phone (also allegedly) with his mother in Virginia.

Who could do such a monstrous thing?   Would I?  Perhaps I might.

A 1 am ride from WeHo to Long Beach is a big, big moneymaker for a driver.  You have distance, plus a late-night bonus of 50-60%, plus open roads. One can earn an easy $50 in half an hour, and still have time to make it back downtown for last call. Rides like that make driving profitable.

It would take an extraordinary provocation to cut it short.

“I couldn’t move the steering wheel an inch. I could have died. I had no choice but to save my life”.

Only the two of them know why this ride went south in a hurry. Justin, sitting in the passenger seat, called his boyfriend to complain the driver wanted to drop him off.  A three-way argument ensued, then Justin “held” the wheel (twice, allegedly), forcing Tariq to continue on to Long Beach, rather than taking an off-ramp.  Bad idea.   That’s how you end up walking along the freeway shoulder, wiping pepper spray out of your eyes.

This is how far he had to walk.  Stay well to the right of the white line, and you’ll be okay.  So why didn’t he?  The mystery of human behavior is revealed in danger.

David Madson, Andrew Cunanan’s second murder victim,  watched as he murder his lover, Jeffrey Trail, in his apartment. Then he rode round with him in a truck for several days.  Given a number of opportunities, he didn’t attempt to escape. Friends of David saw him with Andrew, walking the dog, but he made no outcry for help.    Perhaps he was hoping, when the moment came, he could talk his way out of it. Watching the Versace miniseries, we root for him to slip away, but we know he won’t.     He was executed in a lonely spot by a lake where he allowed his captor to take him.  Don’t Be A Victim 101 says: never let someone else remove you to a remote location. Don’t relinquish authority over your destination. Don’t let them take the wheel.  Fight or flight begins there.

The circumstances in these two cases couldn’t be more different.  Intoxicated he may have been, Justin’s desire was to get to Long Beach. Tariq’s desire was to get home to his two sons.  He had no margin for error.  There begins the tragedy.

The driver of the death car, the person who didn’t stop? Now he’s in a fight or flight with his own conscience.   That’s a longer, stickier narrative.

Rail Killer, Me

Eastbound and downtown, one hour before Rams game
Eastbound and downtown, one hour before Rams game

Here’s a bittersweet factoid: halfway through a massive buildout of the rail system,  Metro ridership is down 16% in the past three years. Transit ridership is down nationally, but nowhere more so than Los Angeles, which alone accounts for nearly a quarter of all rider losses in America, even as we’ve connected the San Gabriel Valley to the beach through the addition of the Gold and Expo Lines.  Anyone want to guess how many riders ended up in the back of my car?

This is a forbidden topic of conversation in policy circles, where 30-year plans continue apace, as though rideshare never happened.

On the gentrification corridor
A Hopper-esque tableau, along the gentrification corridor

On paper, transit oriented housing has much to offer.  If we build snazzy new apartment complexes adjacent to train stations, the thinking goes, we can whisk people to and from work without anyone having to get into their car. It’ll be clean and fast, and people can sip their coffee and look down on the gridlock below with bemusement and relief. Throw in a little music, and….here, why don’t I just let Cameron Crowe perform the honors:

If we gave them great coffee! And great music!   Such was the pre-Jobsian America before the iPhone, and the Cambrian explosion of apps.

Overlooked in the optimism is an inherent contradiction in transit-oriented development.  It ain’t cheap. The very people who pay $2400 for a very modern, desirable one-bedroom apartment, fully stocked with amenities, are the least likely to utilize public transportation.  The train ushers in the housing, the housing sets gentrification in motion, the transit-oriented demographic gets pushed further away from transit lines, where people can afford to live.   If they can swing it, they take UberPool home for maybe a buck or three more.

I drive a lot of people home from work.   As rideshare spreads, this is more and more of my clientele.  In 2014, Uber lowered the per mile rate in Los Angeles to 90 cents, an act greatly decried by the drivers. The Uber argument was: the cheaper the rate, the more the demand, and greater revenue overall for drivers.  Uber runs on metadata, and the data was correct. My hourly has risen significantly each reach year I’ve driven.

Los Angeles does not run on metadata, it runs on politics.  Metadata says you match shift workers with employment zones. Which is to say, you start the rail system in Van Nuys, and East LA and Torrance, and you work your way toward downtown.  Politics says you do the reverse.  You build trains in the whitest, wealthiestliberal precincts of the city, where there is 98% approval for public transportation…for other people.  Because, climate change.

Last Sunday, we rode the Expo Line from the Rams game to Bergamot. We whisked silently along the treetops,  peering down into pedestrian-free neighborhoods brightly jeweled with succulents.  Near the stations, giant excavations were being dug for parking garages atop which fresh Bento Box transit-oriented apartments would soon sit. It was the most civilized public transportation experience I have enjoyed since crossing Puget Sound in a ferry, way back in the ’90s.

I had two thoughts. First, if we cannibalized our not insignificant equity at Chez UpintheValley, a princely sum in the red states, if I could obtain every dollar of paper profit today, fat stacks of cash in my eager hands, there was nothing we could buy here, as far as the eye could see.  Secondly, where we build trains, the whiter it gets. The whiter it gets, the more money I make driving.

Gettin’ Jumped

Ready to be a ho
Wanna Lyft?

Thursday night in Studio City, I get a ride request from a 7-11.  A man gets in and asks a familiar question.
“How long have you been driving for Uber?”
“Two years.”
“Really? Me, too.  I’m a driver, also.”
“That makes us veterans. A rare breed.”
“You ever think about driving for Lyft? Cause I can sign you up right now, in ten minutes.”
Wait, what?

We pulled into a parking lot of a bar, and a woman, his supervisor, hopped into the back seat.  She opened a briefcase. They had a Lyft recruitment packet ready to go.

They were brand ambassadors. They seemed to already know who I was. Like how I had partially completed a Lyft application in 2016, that I never followed up on. They were friendly, eager to have me.  Flirtatious, even.

“We can do the vehicle inspection right here in the parking lot, while you download the driver app.”

Suddenly it was happening. I was being jumped. By the rival gang…

They photographed me standing in front of the bar, submitted my background check, gave me my pink trade dress. I was on my way to being a bi-sexual driver, as so many of us are, now.

It explained a few things. Like the generous spike in Uber driver bonuses of late. And the fresh TV ad campaign for Lyft featuring Jeff Bridges and Tilda Swinton.  Los Angeles is the biggest ride share market in the country, and Lyft has steadily been gaining ground.

LA is the misty plain upon which each company is intent on luring the other into a Pickett’s charge.  If there is going to be a defining slaughter, it’s going to happen here.

Much is made of Uber as a tech company, but the technology behind rideshare is easily duplicable. The company owns nothing, not even the infrastructure.  The phones and the cars are the infrastructure.  What Uber owns, and Lyft desires, is the transaction itself, the connective tissue between rider and driver.    This too, if you think about it, could be re-positioned onto a publicly-owned forum that could match drivers and riders, Craigslist-style, or more accurately Waze-style, in real time.

Rider demand is unslakable and growing.  Cheap fares get people off the bus. Fewer working people on the bus means the derelict/normal person ratio becomes less palatable, leading yet more people to get off the bus. More cars on the road mean fewer people want to drive, and more car owners booking ride share.

So the drivers are the whole ball game.  This may sound counter-intuitive. On paper, we’re 1099 peons from Palookaville. We have no collective bargaining rights, no benefits, no employment status. While nearly anyone without a DUI or criminal record can become a driver, in practice very few people do so.  Most who sign up wash out after a few months.  There is an initial gold rush when Uber enters a new market, after which subsequent driver recruitment efforts yield diminishing returns.   In a few years the market is established and pretty much anyone who is going to be a driver is already doing so, or tried it.

A-Fistful-of-Dollars-and-Yojimbo-A-Comparative-Feature

Los Angeles has entered the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars phase of rideshare.  We’re all smoking cheroots now, trading our services back and forth to rival bands offering no quarter to the other. The money has never been better.   I’m ready to be a ho samurai.  I got my ho shoes samurai sword/six shooter out tonight. I got my pink dress. I’m bisexual, for like, whatever.