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Let Me Uber You Over

On my most recent trip to Los Angeles, I was surprised when my host dropped off his car at his apartment and exited the parking garage, heading to the street. I thought we were walking to a local restaurant as he tapped in information to his phone. "What kind of food do you want?"

"There's that Vietnamese place on the corner," I said, thinking our choices were still very local.

"No, no, wherever you want. We're Ubering."

"We're what?"

"Ubering. I'm calling an Uber. Walk a little faster," he added, checking his phone. "He's already here."

Magically, a late-model sedan had appeared at the top of the street. We hopped in the car, and the driver pulled away onto Sunset Boulevard. It was not a taxi. It had no meter. Beside us in the back-seat drink holders were two fresh bottles of water. The driver, a French-born Bostonian, offered us gum and then cheerfully helped us figure out our dining options. Uber was treating him well - most of the places we talked about he had dined at himself and could discuss their choices as a local foodie expert would.

And that was my welcome to Uber, a shared-car service accessed via an iPhone app. While it was initially promoted as a kind of friends-sharing-cars setup similar to AirBnb offering empty rooms in someone's house, the reality is that the drivers are mostly doing this full-time and that Uber is a new and much cheaper taxi service.

Over the next day, I used Uber three times - each time having a car arrive almost instantly, all of the vehicles shining and new, and each driver overwhelmingly polite, to the point of it feeling strange and startling, as if I had wandered into an alternative universe. Gum and water appeared to be standard equipment for Uber. Even better, it's a cashless system - those who use the app have entered their credit card information and money never exchanges hands physically. Pricing was a fraction of what a traditional taxi would be - literally, about 25% or less of the expected cost. In Los Angeles, the trip cost was often completely offset by savings in parking fees, which are high in the city. The downside? If you can't access the Uber app, which requires an iPhone or Android, you won't be going anywhere. And if you love your local taxi drivers or cab companies, Uber is not for you. The controversy over the service has incited protests and lawsuits. It's not just that they are competing with traditional taxis. From my experience, they are outshining the "old" method with faster service, better cards, and more pleasant drivers. This is true even for taxi drivers, some of whom are abandoning their lease agreements with cab companies and becoming Uber drivers instead.

At present, Uber is in 45 countries and expanding rapidly.

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