TIME apps

For a Few Hours, Uber Riders Could Learn Their Client Rating

An Uber app is seen on an iPhone in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Dec. 19, 2013.
An Uber app is seen on an iPhone in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Dec. 19, 2013. Lucy Nicholson—Reuters

The app's software team quickly repaired the glitch, and passenger rankings were once again controversially private

Uber, as Valleywag’s Sam Biddle writes, “doesn’t care about being hated.” After all, the taxi service application earned a cool $18.2 billion valuation last month, in spite of a gallery of controversial corporate practices that has prompted critics of Silicon Valley to make a litany of accusations. Uber incommensurately raises prices during peak hours, holidays and weather emergencies. Uber sabotages its competition. Uber ranks its customers.

It ranks its customers, yes. At the end of a ride, the application asks the passenger to give his or her driver a ranking on a five star system; the drivers, as the internet has only recently learned, are asked the same of their clients. The underlying logic is obvious and not really anything new — if your credit score is bad, a bank is going to hesitate before doing business with you — but users were nonetheless kind of perturbed, given the secrecy surrounding the passenger rankings. (“Uber Anxiety,” New York Magazine calls it.)

On Sunday, however, a software engineer named Aaron Landy posted to Medium step-by-step instructions on how a client can find his or her aggregate score, via some very simple skullduggery on the app’s mobile website. Uber’s programming team naturally caught wind of this and quickly swooped in to patch things up, but not before a number of Uber riders sought revelation.

By early Monday morning, one user’s attempts to learn his worth in the eyes of the benevolent transit god proved futile.

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 2.39.06 PM

Uber is, however, exploring ways of sharing passenger ratings in future versions of the app, or so they say. Meanwhile, the company expands — they celebrated the launch of service in Hong Kong and mainland China in the last few weeks — with the habit of incurring the wrath of local taxi drivers in each new territory.

TIME Transportation

Lyft Launching in New York City Following 2-Week Delay

Ridesharing Salt Lake City
A Lyft car crosses Market Street in San Francisco, Jan. 17, 2013. Jeff Chiu—AP

Lyft will have to use commercial drivers in the five boroughs

After a two-week legal spat with state officials, ride-sharing service Lyft is finally taking off in New York City Friday at 7 p.m. ET.

Unlike in other cities, where strangers can give rides to their neighbors using the Lyft app, the service in the five boroughs will be operated by commercial drivers only, according to a statement from the New York Attorney General’s office. The change in Lyft’s business model makes it compliant with the rules of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates taxis and black car services, such as Uber, in New York City.

Despite the deal, Lyft is not giving up on eventually bringing its original model to New York City. “This agreement is the first big step in finding a home for Lyft’s peer-to-peer model in New York,” the company said in a blog post. “We’ll continue to work with the TLC, Department of Financial Services, and the Attorney General’s office to craft new rules for peer-to-peer transportation in New York.”

As part of its agreement with the state, Lyft will suspend its operations in Buffalo and Rochester by August 1. The company says it will work with regulatory officials to comply with state law and relaunch in those communities later.

TIME Transportation

Lyft Delays New York Launch to Seek Government Approval

Lyft Car
A Lyft car drives along Powell Street on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan—;Getty Images

The state attorney's general office had sought a restraining order after failed attempts to get Lyft to comply with state law

Updated July 11, 5:32 p.m.

The ride-sharing service Lyft has delayed its launch in New York following a request for a restraining order by the state attorney general’s office. In a joint statement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and State Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin Lawsky said they sought the restraining order after failed attempts to get Lyft to comply with state law.

“Instead of collaborating with the State to help square innovation with statute and protect the public, as other technology companies have done as recently as this week, Lyft decided to move ahead and simply ignore state and local laws,” the statement reads. “Lyft’s arguments are a disingenuous attempt to disguise old-fashioned law-breaking that jeopardizes public safety.”

Lyft is an app-based service that allows regular people to offer rides to strangers in their area in exchange for money. The company has argued that it is not a taxi service and therefore should not be bound to the regulations of New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. Following this week’s legal wrangling, though, the company says it will now seek TLC approval before launching in New York. “We agreed in New York State Supreme Court to put off the launch of Lyft’s peer-to-peer model in New York City and we will not proceed with this model unless it complies with New York City Taxi and Limousine regulations,” the company said. “We will meet with the TLC beginning Monday to work on a new version of Lyft that is fully-licensed by the TLC.”

The joint statement from the government originally claimed that the attorney general’s office had successfully lobbied the state Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order against Lyft. However, after Lyft said that no such order was issued, the office changed its statement to say that an “injunction” had been issued. Lyft maintains that neither a restraining order nor an injunction was issued, but that the court adjourned and the company agreed to postpone its launch.

Other car-hailing tech companies like Uber have gone through the TLC to operate in New York. The ones that haven’t, like Sidecar, have been kicked out of the city. “We are committed to fostering a competitive marketplace where each participant is treated fairly,” the statement by Schneiderman and Lawsky said. “We are hopeful that Lyft will now recognize that it has to play by the same set of rules as everyone else.”

Lyft was originally scheduled to launch at 7 p.m. Friday with service in Brooklyn and Queens. The company still plans to host a launch party Friday night in Brooklyn.

TIME Transportation

Uber Agrees to Limit Surge Pricing During Emergencies, Disasters

The deal was brokered by the New York attorney general after Uber’s price-surge policy ran afoul of the state’s price-gouging laws

Ride-hailing service Uber has agreed to stop raising prices substantially during natural disasters and states of emergency, the company announced today. The policy, through which Uber charges more when there is increased demand for its private cars, had previously earned the start-up the ire of customers during disasters like Hurricane Sandy and a harsh winter storm in New York. The company has previously claimed that increasing prices helps convince more drivers to go out on the road and accept fares during a storm.

The deal was brokered by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman because Uber’s price-surge policy ran afoul of the state’s price-gouging laws. Under the new terms, Uber has agreed to cap its prices during emergencies and disasters at a level below the three highest-priced days in the previous two months (Uber prices are constantly in flux because of supply and demand). The new rules will apply nationally. Uber also said it would donate the surge commission it earns on fares during natural disasters and emergencies to the American Red Cross.

“This policy intends to strike the careful balance between the goal of transportation availability with community expectations of affordability during disasters,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a blog post. “Our collaborative solution with Attorney General Schneiderman is a model for technology companies and regulators in local, state and federal government.”

In June, Uber catapulted to the top of the head of highly valued start-ups when it earned a $17 billion valuation during a $1.2 billion funding round. This week the company also announced a 20% price cut in New York City that will make its prices more competitive with traditional yellow taxis.

TIME Mobile

Lyft Is Finally Launching in New York, Will Take on Uber

Lyft Car
A Lyft car drives along Powell Street on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Just as Uber announced a price cut for its cheapest service

Ride-sharing service Lyft is about to enter its biggest market yet. The company announced Tuesday that it will launch in New York City on July 11, serving Brooklyn and Queens. The service, which allows people to hail short car rides from people in the area via an app, will start with more than 500 drivers in the city.

Lyft is framing the expansion as an opportunity to serve New Yorkers who can’t easily access traditional yellow cabs, which are mostly found in Manhattan. Only one of New York’s subway lines travels between boroughs without going through Manhattan, and Lyft says 95 percent of taxi pick-ups happen in Manhattan or at Queens’ airports. To entice new customers, users in New York will receive free rides for two weeks.

Lyft will enter a highly competitive market in New York. Uber announced Monday that it was temporarily slashing the prices for its most basic car-hailing service, UberX, to rates that it claims are lower than those of traditional taxis. Meanwhile, New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission last year rolled out a new line of green cars for the outer boroughs aimed at expanding cab service to more of the city’s eight million residents.

The taxi cab industry, which is heavily regulated by the TLC, is not likely to be happy about Lyft’s arrival. These new app-based startups threaten the value of medallions, licenses that New York taxis must have to operate (medallion prices have already slipped slightly this year). Sidecar, a ridesharing service similar to Lyft, suspended activities in New York last year after one of its drivers had her car impounded for operating an unlicensed vehicle for hire. Another service called RelayRides was also forced to shut down.

Erin Simpson, Lyft’s director of communications, says the company has ensured it meets the necessary safety requirements to operate in New York. Drivers, for instance, are subject to background checks and vehicle inspections, and they’re covered by $1 million in liability insurance.

“We’ve voluntarily reached out to engage with the TLC to explain how our peer-to-peer model works,” Simpson says. “We actually have more strict safety requirements than they currently require.”

Though Simpson says the company shouldn’t have to be regulated by the TLC because of its ridesharing model, Lyft is currently in “ongoing conversations” with the commission about its presence in New York. TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg offered an equally delicate response to Lyft’s launch. “Lyft has no license to operate in New York City,” Fromberg said in an email. “We are strongly encouraging them to work with us as we have worked together with so many other companies, like Uber, TaxiMagic, Hailo, Whisk and Gett, etc., to do the right thing. We have an impressive track record of embracing and welcoming new technology and new transportation options, and we hope they will ultimately do what’s right in the name of public safety and consumer rights.”

New York will be the sixty-eighth city where Lyft launches. Simpson said the service has processed millions of rides and enlisted thousands of drivers but declined to discuss the company’s financials. In December TechCrunch estimated that the company was generating more than $100 million per year in gross revenue.

TIME

Uber Gets Green Light in London After Massive Protests

Uber London
A London taxi driver speaks with Police Officers during a protest against a new smart phone app, 'Uber' on June 11, 2014 in London, England. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

The ride-sharing service Uber has been given the green light by London's transport regulator, who ruled the company is legal

London’s transport regulator has said that car service startup Uber can legally operate in the British capital.

Transport for London (TfL) said Thursday that the ride-sharing service was free to continue working in London. The ruling comes in defiance of last month’s cab driver strikes held in the city and elsewhere across Europe in protest of Uber. Many cabbies argue that Uber, a San Francisco-based startup, was stealing business from them. They say Uber doesn’t follow local rules and doesn’t pay sufficient tax.

Uber, which lets customers book drivers via a smartphone app, says it’s an innovator in a rigidly conservative industry.

In a statement to the TfL board, Leon Daniels, Managing Director of Surface Transport, which governs London’s above-ground transit options, noted that other cab companies have alleged Uber is not a licensed Private Hire Vehicle operator and that Uber cars come with taximeters, which are only allowed in black cabs under London law.

In response, Daniels said: “In relation to the way Uber operates in London, TfL is satisfied that based upon our understanding of the relationship between the passenger and Uber London, and between Uber London and Uber BV, registered in Holland, that it is operating lawfully.”

Daniels added that because Uber’s taximeters are smartphones, they “have no operational or physical connection with the vehicles, and [so] … are not taximeters within the meaning of the legislation.”

A British court is due to make a final ruling on whether Uber’s technology is the same as a taximeter. Their decision will be delayed while six legal cases brought by a taxi union against individual Uber drivers are heard.

 

MONEY Autos

Can We Stop Pretending the Sharing Economy Is All About Sharing?

Street parking in San Francisco
Good luck finding someone in San Francisco who will share a parking space out of the goodness of his heart. samc—Alamy

It sure seems like a stretch to say that selling a public parking space or renting out multiple apartments to tourists constitutes "sharing."

The “sharing economy” is the all-purpose term used to describe transactions in which someone in possession of a car, or home, or self-storage space, or commercial real estate, or almost anything else imaginable “shares” it with a stranger. But is “sharing” the right word? Sharing is something people generally do out of the goodness of their hearts, and in pretty much all sharing economy scenarios, some money is changing hands. You don’t come across too many listings at airbnb, the godfather of the sharing economy model, posted with a nightly rate of “share and share alike.”

The other popular term for this world, “peer-to-peer” business, seems more accurate, though also more cold-hearted. The latest example of the “sharing economy” phrase seeming like a stretch comes in the form of an app that allows a user to auction off a public parking space for $5, or maybe $20, occupied by his car. If your initial reaction is that this is simply unregulated, tech-enabled, supply-and-demand entrepreneurial capitalism as opposed to “sharing,” you’re not alone.

“The rub is that your parking spot isn’t really yours. It’s the city’s,” Wired wrote of the app, MonkeyParking, when it debuted in San Francisco in May. “Whereas services like Uber and Airbnb help us make use of things that would otherwise go unused — at least in theory — MonkeyParking merely lets one person grab something ahead of another. That strikes a lot of people as anti-social.”

It also strikes many as quite the opposite of sharing. And the app strikes the San Francisco city attorney as illegal. A cease-and-desist letter was sent to the app’s makers recently, and city attorney Dennis Herrera issued a statement accusing MonkeyParking of creating “a predatory private market for public parking spaces that San Franciscans will not tolerate.”

That would seem to be the end of MonkeyParking, but the app’s makers aren’t giving up without a fight. On Thursday, MonkeyParking CEO Paolo Dobrowolny issued a statement refusing to shut down the app, not on the grounds that the cease-and-desist order constitutes an infringement on sharing but because it was “an open violation of free speech.”

“I have the right to tell people if I am about to leave a parking spot, and they have the right to pay me for such information,” Dobrowolny said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Another San Francisco-based parking space app, Parkmondo, which also received a warning from the city, also claims that it’s simply information being sold, not publicly owned parking spaces. “The last time I checked there is no law in America that prohibits you from selling your information,” Parkmondo’s Daniel Shifrin explained to the Wall Street Journal.

Not long ago, the Chronicle also posted a report poking holes in airbnb’s “folksy” argument that the vast majority of its hosts are simply small-time “home sharers” who earn a few dollars here and there by occasionally renting out a spare room. This is a perception airbnb has presented by way of reports like one issued last summer concerning Paris, in which researchers released data points like this:

83% of Airbnb hosts rent the homes they live in to visitors on an occasional basis, and nearly half the income they make helps them to make ends meet by being spent on living expenses (rent/mortgage, utilities, and other bills).

The Chronicle report showed a different picture. After looking at 5,000 airbnb listings in the city, the paper determined that two-thirds of rentals were for entire homes or apartments—not spare rooms—and that roughly one-third of the “hosts” controlled multiple listings. The latter point indicates that these “hosts” seem a lot more like old-fashioned landlords than collaborative techie sharers.

Some of the “sharing economy” businesses are themselves being accused of using ruthless, old-fashioned money-making tactics. An Alternet post pointed out that in light of surge pricing, the lack of regulation, and labor exploitation, the ride-sharing company Uber has a lot in common with “old-school capitalist companies.” In Seattle and Los Angeles, among other places, Uber drivers—those who directly benefit from sharing economy transactions—are battling it out to get more protection and rights as employees.

Drivers for Uber and its ride-share competitor, Lyft, have also been complaining that the pay is decreasing. This is especially hard for drivers to stomach when they read about Uber being worth $17 billion. Why can’t such a valuable sharing economy business, you know, share the wealth, drivers are wondering.

While ride-share companies are being taken to task for exploiting drivers—who are independent contractors not employees, the companies claim—MonkeyParking is being accused of something worse: illegally using public property for profit, and making life even more difficult and unfair for the poor guy on the lookout for a free spot to park.

MonkeyParking sees the situation differently, of course. “It’s a fair business for anybody,” CEO Dobrowolny told the Chronicle. “It’s not just for rich people. If you think you can get that money back when you leave that parking spot, you can earn back the money when you leave the spot.”

That may very well strike you as fair. But it’s not sharing.

TIME Business

The Sharing Economy Boom Is About to Bust

Airbnb'S Value Estimated At $10 Billion After New Round Of Investments
Online home-rental marketplace Airbnb Inc. is about to receive more than $450 million in investments from a group led by private-equity firm TPG. The new investments will value the startup at $10 billion, significantly higher than some publicly traded hotel chains. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Startups like Airbnb and Uber are already experiencing a backlash from traditional hotel and taxi industries, all because local governments didn't anticipate the regulatory questions posed by this new economic model.

I have learned the hard way, as father to three small boys, that sharing causes conflict. Ask humans to play with the same toy at the same time, and it won’t take long for a fight to break out. The smart move is to find duplicates of that toy or, if that’s impossible, to urge interested parties to “take turns.”

That’s why I’m afraid the much-celebrated “sharing economy”—the catch-all name for “peer-to-peer” firms that connect people for the purposes of distributing, sharing, and reusing goods and services—is likely to produce more fights than profits. States could be embroiled for years in political, legal, commercial and environmental battles related to sharing.

Companies such as the ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber and the apartment-sharing service Airbnb are success stories; Airbnb is already worth more than the Hyatt or Wyndham hotel chains. In the blocks near my Santa Monica, Calif., office are dozens of such growing companies, among them Tradesy (a marketplace for women buying and selling new and gently used clothing) and DogVacay (connecting pet owners with pet sitters).

Sharing services can eliminate waste, improve efficiency, connect people to one another, and allow us to make money on extra stuff in our closets and garages. And if that’s all the sharing economy promised to do, I’d have no reason to worry. But the sharing economy is more than a business sector—it’s a movement, with the grandest of ambitions for our politics, culture and environment.

Over a couple of months of reading about and talking to people in the sharing economy, I’ve been struck frequently by the limitless ambitions of its participants and proponents. Here are just a few of those ambitions: reversing economic inequality, stopping ecological destruction, countering the materialistic tendencies of First World societies, enhancing worker rights, empowering the poor, curing cancer and reimagining our politics.

It would be easy to dismiss sharing economy hype as just more of the self-aggrandizing, self-righteous nonsense for which liberal pockets are well-known. Except that the sharing economy is already threatening to reach into every corner of our lives, from food to photography, education to finance. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider this: venture capitalists just funded an app to help you find someone to do your laundry for you.

The best adjective to describe this kind of movement is totalitarian. As the Czech novelist Milan Kundera put it, “Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise.” So my bid to watch your dog while you’re on vacation—and yours to drive me to the airport—is at once freeing and full of dangers. Who’s responsible if your dog bites my kid while in my care? What kind of car insurance, training and licensing do you need to shuttle me safely? What, if anything, do we owe to the kennel workers and cabbies who lose work? And who decides how we govern all of this?

There are so many potential conflicts—along professional, political, commercial, geographic, generational and gender lines—posed by sharing that I couldn’t list them here. To pick just one more: sharing is a threat to the general plans of virtually every city. After all, what is Airbnb if not a rezoning of residential areas into hotel space?

Of course, the movement doesn’t see itself as a starter of wars—and that may be its biggest weakness. Instead of recognizing the conflict and anger that could be produced by their efforts to transform the world, cheerleaders of the sharing economy celebrate its “disruptive” power—as well as its “sustainability.”

Whether being used by the environmental left or the anti-spending right, “sustainability” has become a vague but powerful way to dismiss somebody else’s idea without having to reckon with the particulars. “That’s unsustainable,” means it can’t go on, so why continue to discuss? It’s how we say no to anything new that might cost money or consume energy. So, naturally, almost every government or corporate bureaucracy you encounter–in California at least–has an office of sustainability.

What many states don’t have are the governance infrastructure to host the multi-front battles over sharing and sustainability that are on the horizon. Weak local governments can’t deal with all the new planning, zoning, licensing and regulatory questions posed by this new economic model. Courts are already too crowded to handle basic functions—much less a host of new claims sparked by sharing enterprises. And our political system, with its low voter participation and big money, simply can’t produce definitive, legitimate answers on the big new policy questions posed by all this sharing.

For all its promise, the sharing economy threatens to turn virtually every aspect of living into contested ground. And that’s no way to live.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Tech

‘Uber for Marijuana’ App Will Deliver Pot to Your Door

… If you have a medicinal marijuana card and live in Washington State

Say goodbye to those awkwardly composed texts to your friend’s friend’s friend (“Hey, do you by any chance …”), because two college students have come up with a solution — a marijuana-delivery app called Canary.

But don’t get too excited. For now, Canary, founded by University of Washington students Josiah Tullis and Megh Vakharia, will allow only medical-marijuana card holders to place orders for their favorite strains of bud, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Thursday. Though marijuana possession in Washington State has been legal for those over 21 after voters passed Initiative 502 in 2012, the first licensed retailers have yet to open.

The plan, though, is to one day begin delivering recreational marijuana.

“The uncertainties are not in the technology; the technology has already been done before. The uncertainties are in the legality on the business side,” Tullis said.

Tullis and Vakharia pitched the idea to a startup conference hosted by TechCrunch, where they were met with widespread support. Investors have expressed interest, and drivers from Uber and Lyft looking for delivery jobs are already interviewing.

And what do their parents have to say about it? Vakharia’s mom told him, “Go ahead and pursue this business; just don’t partake in what you’re delivering.”

Well, good thing they’ve already gotten into college.

TIME Companies

Uber Will Let You Catch a Ride Aboard Optimus Prime

Transformers The Ride - 3D Grand Opening Celebration
Optimus Prime attends Transformers The Ride - 3D Grand Opening Celebration at Universal Orlando on June 20, 2013 in Orlando, Florida. Gustavo Caballero—Getty Images

Promoting the upcoming Transformers film

First it was on-call ice cream trucks, then Fourth of July choppers and finally delivery air conditioners—now Uber is launching a limited-time offer to ride Optimus Prime, a replica of the 18-wheeler cab that morphs into Transformers’ Autobot leader.

For three days from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., Uber users in Dallas (June 16), Phoenix (June 19) and Los Angeles (June 21) will be able to summon Optimus Prime (in his truck form, of course) for a 15-minute experience. Like the Angry Birds Transformers game announced yesterday, Uber’s special ride is a promotional tie-in for the upcoming Transformers: Age of Extinction, which premieres June 27.

But the on-demand car service, valued at a whopping $17 billion, warns that Optimus will be in high demand.

“There’s only one Optimus Prime, so making contact will be difficult and may take many tries,” says Uber’s blog. “But don’t give up!”

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