My birthday ridesharing adventure

For upstate residents, Thursday, June 29 marked the first day of operations for popular ridesharing services Lyft and Uber. For this particular (transplanted) upstate resident, it also marked a birthday and an opportunity to test my theory that the ridesharing services might usher in a new era of car-optional country living. (Spoiler alert — it won’t, at least not yet).

I came late to driving and, like someone who learns a new language as an adult, never became entirely comfortable with it. Born and raised in lower Manhattan, I spent the first 18 years of my life convinced that a subway token or cab fare could get me anywhere I might conceivably want to go. A hitch in the Marine Corps would dispel that delusion. I learned to drive — a little — on a buddy’s IROC Z cruising down North Carolina back roads. I was even pressed into service driving my battalion commander around a training area in Humvee until a sergeant familiar with my freakish non-driver status swapped me out for a more suitable lance corporal. After leaving the service I went back to Manhattan and back to my beloved subway.

Things changed in September 2002 when I moved to Kingston, took a job at the Daily Freeman and realized my long-overdue reckoning with the automobile age was at hand. I passed my driver’s test in Albany behind the wheel of a ’91 Cutlass Ciera inherited from my grandmother with my seven months-pregnant wife in the backseat. That was 15 years, four cars and many, many miles on Hudson Valley roads ago. And I’d still rather take the train.

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So it was that on June 29 I set out to prove, or disprove, that we in the Hudson Valley are heading into a brave new world of transportation options.
The experiment started out auspiciously enough when a shiny “Dukes of Hazzard”-orange Dodge Charger pulls into my driveway in West Saugerties at 11:37 a.m. Exactly 27 minutes earlier I had opened the Uber app and ordered a ride to Mill Hill Road, three miles and five minutes away. The app also gave me an estimated time of arrival — which turned out to be dead on — and a price, $7.08. (It’s worth noting here that a few years ago a local cab company charged me $35 for an only slightly longer ride home from the Village of Saugerties, explaining that I would have to pay mileage for the driver to come from Kingston to pick me up).

My driver, a towheaded college kid we’ll call “Anthony” was the only Uber driver who responded to my request. Anthony had spent the morning in Albany expecting plenty of business with the statewide rollout of Uber service. Instead, he spent a few hours cruising around without a single bite. He was heading back home on the Thruway when he got my call and his first passenger as an Uber driver. En route to town, Anthony explains that he’s home from school for the summer and hopes to make a little extra money shuttling the party crowd around and between New Paltz and Kingston on weekend nights. I spend an hour and a half walking around Woodstock running errands, getting lunch and wrestling with a strange unmoored feeling that comes from going car-free in the country. I half expect that I will end up walking the three miles back home or become one of those folks you see trudging along Route 212 with their thumb in the air — a move I’ve come to think of as “Uber Classic.”

For our next ride, from Woodstock back home, I open the app for Uber’s main competitor, Lyft. Standing in a shopping plaza on Mill Hill Road I’m dismayed to get the “poor connectivity” alert on my iPhone 7. Fortunately, I have my daughter along and she has both the app and a more compliant phone. Moments later we are all set up with a driver coming from Kingston in a Jeep Cherokee with an estimated arrival time of 20 minutes. Not long after I get text from “Don” — Uber and Lyft both allow passengers and drivers to communicate with one another via the app — informing me that there’s been a minor accident and he’s running 10 minutes late. When he arrives, exactly 30 minutes after I ordered the ride, I’m relieved to find the Jeep free of obvious signs of mishap. It turns out he was stuck behind the accident, not party to it. Don lives in northern Ulster County and he’s signed up to drive for both Uber and Lyft. Don said he’s spent the morning driving around Kingston, where there seems to be an ample supply of both customers and users for the new ridesharing services. My Lyft home will cost me $9.37.

Hours later after a birthday dinner in Woodstock I get a quote of $21 and a 10-minute arrival time for an Uber heading to Kingston. Various local cab companies have charged me between $25 and $35 for the ride. I do even better when a friend offers to give me a lift. After swinging through few Uptown Kingston drinking establishments I end up at my home bar and second job — Snapper Magee’s on North Front Street. By now, as evidenced by some bizarre scrawling scattered in weird places around my reporter’s notebook, it’s clear that my editorial judgment has begun to slip. Fortunately I have emailed receipts to help me reconstruct the remainder of my ridesharing experiment.

My next stop is “Nerd Night” at Tony’s Pizza on Broadway. It’s a new theme night for people who enjoy pizza, booze and bizarre Japanese sushi-swapping card games. From Snapper’s, I open the Lyft app around 11:15 p.m. and am pleasantly surprised to find a car and driver virtually outside the door. Susan is a 20-something blonde with a sense of humor who on this first night of ride sharing is busily shuttling drunks up and down the Broadway corridor in her Nissan. “You’re going to Tony’s” she asks as I take my seat. “I just picked some people up there, it’s nerd night or something?” Susan’s had a challenging first day as a Lyft driver. It appears that customers and drivers alike have a learning curve. Cancelled rides and overall confusion made for a less-than-stellar rollout, but she’s taking it in stride.

“If I was doing this as my main job I’d say it was a disaster,” said Susan. “But it’s not my main job so it’s hilarious how much is going wrong.”

Two hours later I’m back in Susan’s Nissan heading back to Snapper’s. Each ride will cost me $9.37. That’s a fairly sharp increase over cab service in the city. A 2011 Kingston taxi ordinance sets a maximum fare of $5.50 for any ride within city limits. At any rate Susan is once again quick to the scene and pleasant company for the five-minute trip Uptown. As I exit the cab I tell her I might be seeing her a third time in a few hours when I need a ride back to Woodstock. She just laughs. I should have understood that laugh to mean, “What maniac is going to drive people around Kingston at 5 a.m. on a Friday morning?” but I was feeling a bit lightheaded and the message was garbled.

And so it was, at Snappers at 4 a.m. that I came up against the limits of my ridesharing adventure. Companies like Lyft and Uber sell themselves to drivers as a “work when you want” gig and, at least on this first day of service in upstate New York, no one wants to work those hours, when the only people out and about are cops, bread truck drivers, insomniac schizophrenics and Snapper’s bar staff.

With Uber and Lyft coming up a blank I gave in and called Kingston Kabs who told me they could probably get someone there in an hour. In the end I cadged a ride from a fellow Snapper’s bartender and all-around good guy who happened to be heading home on the Thruway. I passed by our little Kia in the driveway heading inside and thought I’d better get some sleep because I have to drive in to work in a few hours.

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