Getting around, but maybe not here


In San Francisco last week, the restaurant I had to get to was six blocks downhill from where I was staying. Wait, let me amend that. The six blocks was right, but I should have added that the downhill was about 45 degrees, something no one had let me know. It was a quick trip.

As dinner ended, I was considering the problem of retracing my steps, a prospect that might very well take me a couple of trudging hours and more energy than I wanted to expend in the soft, early spring, late evening among the gen-Xers, the Ys, and the madcap millennials sporting about with their Lifewaters and cigarettes.

As it happened, my daughter had the lifesaving answer to the internal rosary I was reciting. She had an app.

Incidentally, I’m telling you this because I gather that what happens in California will ultimately head East. Their genius is to export fashions, unusual accounting practices, pensions that will not be there when they are needed, computers, software, surfing, municipal bankruptcies, avocados, Branjelina, and so much more. Californians export, we import. So, the app we used that San Francisco evening to get where we were going is headed our way.

You may have used Sidecar or similar services — one’s called Uber — in San Francisco or Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C., or elsewhere. Ordinary citizens with cars make themselves available to pick you up and leave you where you ask. The whole deal takes place on your mobile phone. You tell Sidecar where you are — actually Sidecar, Facebook, Twitter, the IRS, Google, Yahoo, the police, and your wife already know — and where you’re headed, and after a bit someone agrees to pick you up. You get a photo of the driver on your phone, together with ratings from others for his services. And, you pay what you like. It’s a donation-based service, and your donation, if you choose to make one, travels from your phone to Sidecar. How much is your choice. Of course, just as the drivers get graded, so do the passengers.

Let Sidecar explain itself. “SideCar is moving transportation in a big, sustainable, community-driven direction – one ride at a time. Whether you’re ready to fill your car’s empty seats with new friends or need to get across town in a hurry, SideCar connects you with just the person to help you out.” There’s a hint of eHarmony’s melody in that line from the Sidecar website, but in my brief experience, there were no emotional sparks.

And the ride for Sidecar may be bumpy. An October 2012 Wall Street Journal article reported that “Ride-sharing company SideCar has raised $10 million in a round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and Google Ventures to help the San Francisco-based start-up scale to new cities. The infusion comes two months after the California Public Utilities Commission issued a cease-and-desist letter to SideCar, Lyft and others operating in the new space. ‘You never know what will happen on the regulatory front, but the macro trends are in favor of this,’ said Justin Caldbeck, managing director at Lightspeed.”

I wondered about the regulatory front more than the macro trends as Alix, her friend Mark, and I got into the impeccable Prius that belonged to our driver. He was a young, Asian man, charming and, as it turned out, an accountant in his day job. I asked about the mix — accounting and taxiing — and he said he drove folks around San Francisco just a couple of evenings a week, for the fun of it, when he had nothing better to do. The question hung in the air between us — What accountant has evenings free in tax season? But, it went unasked. It seemed impertinent. I did ask about insurance, specifically was he insured for transporting complete strangers? The answer ultimately left me unenlightened.

Sidecar is big on safety. The company holds out the possibility that you’ll fall in love with the stranger who is driving you or the strangers you are riding with, but other kinds of assaults on your dignity and independence are out. “Safety is our #1 priority,” the site explains. “All community drivers not only must have a valid driver’s license, insurance and a good car in working order, but we also run background checks, conduct interviews and use GPS technology to track every trip. Passengers are not anonymous; SideCar takes steps to ensure passenger identity and accountability for a safer driving experience. And, after each ride, passengers rate drivers 1 to 5 stars. We investigate any community members, both passengers and drives (sic), with consistently low ratings. Any community driver with less than a 4.5 rating over their first few trips or who doesn’t meet SideCar’s safety, performance, or courtesy standards will be deactivated. Your ratings, both low and high, give SideCar drivers yet another reason to provide friendly, safe and reliable rides.”

I gather from this that both the driver and the passenger are subject to deactivation, which has a harsh ring to it, but in the community-minded, donation-based Sidecar universe, driver and passenger failures probably just have their cookies rejected by the software.

Could Sidecar succeed on Martha’s Vineyard. Hard to say. Islanders are awfully critical. Passengers would render bitter, savage reviews of drivers. Drivers would blister passengers. Before long, passengers would be assuming false identities to fool the software so that they could get a ride from a driver who had done the same identity scam to escape the low marks he’d got from earlier fares.

Then there is the quality of Island cars, beaters that always try, but often fail to get where they’re going. That’s not going excite generosity in passengers and drivers writing their reviews. And, what about the long, muddy, pothole-ravaged roads down to a weekly rental on the pond? Who will want to condemn a Prius to punishment like that?

Editor’s Note: Nis Kildegaard’s Soundings column will not appear this month. It will resume May 7.