Eleven p.m. on a Friday night and there weren't any cabs available. Typical. Twenty minutes passed until an irritable taxi dispatcher explained that my ride wouldn’t arrive for another 30 minutes. That's when a friend introduced me to SideCar, an alternative ride app that lets strangers catch paid rides from other strangers.
My first SideCar experience was seamless — it took just a minute to request a ride and, less than ten minutes later, I received a friendly call from our driver saying that he had arrived at our pick-up location. A picture of the driver and his car was posted on the app, which helped me easily identify his car in the street. The trip didn’t feel any different from riding in the back of a friend’s car — it was clean, the ride was smooth and our driver was very nice.
SideCar originated in San Francisco and started servicing Seattleites in November. Though Alex LaChance, City Manager for SideCar Seattle, wouldn't say how many users the service has in Seattle or how many drivers they'd approved yet, she did say that, "SideCar has matched over 100,000 shared rides total."
It's natural to be skeptical of the app — a stranger picking you up in a random car? It sounds like a bad idea. But two months and over ten rides later, I’m not the only Seattleite hooked on the taxi-alternative.
“SideCar is the most cost efficient method that is timely. It’s safe because of the screening process drivers go through and most of all, it’s enjoyable because drivers are rated just like passengers are and therefore, it behooves everyone involved to enjoy one another’s company,” explained app user Kevin Durkin.
LaChance explained that SideCar goes through a ten step vetting process — a full background and driving check, interviews and in-person trainings — before people can become authorized drivers.
“To make sure the cars are safe, we have applicants submit photos as well as the make, model and year of the car. Our team reviews each car individually to make sure that it meets SideCar standards,” added LaChance.
Making money, without the boss
Most drivers are like Marcell Marias, a musician and artist, who became a SideCar driver to earn some extra cash on the weekends. “It’s independent employment — I can make my own hours," Marias explains. "The flexibility of being an independent agent is a major aspect of it. I’m my own boss… and I like it!”
“80 percent [of the suggested donation] goes to the driver…so for me it’s good extra money,” he says.
SideCar drivers in new markets, like Seattle, can also commit to certain schedules in return for a $15 per hour wage guarantee. “For me it’s working out… it is a legit way to make money and it’s what I have to do,” added Marias.
Trouble with transportation innovation
Not everyone is happy with SideCar, however. In November, the California Public Utilities Commission issued the service a $20,000 fine for not having required state permits.
“We are simply a platform that connects drivers with riders. They are not employees of SideCar in any way. Our legal team and board are in negotiations to get a new agreement with CPUC, but I haven’t heard of any issues in Seattle. Seattle seems to be backing community ridesharing,” explained LaChance.
In Marias’ experience, “urban twenty-something” Seattleites living in Ballard, Fremont and sometimes the University District request the most rides, with the main destination being Capitol Hill. However, Marias said most neighborhoods in Seattle are well serviced.
“When I open the app at the beginning of the night I see a good spread of SideCars from up north down to the SODO neighborhoods, with cars ready to give people rides. Between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., everyone’s trying to get home from the bars so it may be hard to get a ride from Capitol Hill then. But we congregate there at the end of the night, because we know most of the people who are using SideCar are there,” explained Marias.
SideCar has become a popular transportation solution amongst Seattleites: “We are bringing drivers on board all the time and the demand is great… We are working our way up the chain,” said LaChance.
“It’s forcing innovation and bucking the norm," said Durkin. "Those [taxi drivers] that choose to compete [with SideCar] will eventually come up with the next revolutionary idea, and the process keeps iterating on forward.”