First Time I Have Seen This in an Uber

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Back seat of an UberX car, October 28, 2015, in Washington D.C.

The main appeal of Uber and Lyft is predictability. If I’m trying to find a regular taxi, I have no idea when or whether one might show up. But with the on-demand services, the obvious plus is the knowledge that one is coming, and some idea of when it will appear.

For me a differential appeal of Uber over Lyft is the tipping ethic. (For the record: one of my sons works at Uber.) Lyft drivers, in my experience, seem to expect or hope for tips; part of the appeal of Uber is that you step out with the bill all paid.

On the great tipping debate, I’ve long been with the “raise the wage, dump the tips” proponents. My reasons are some I mentioned here and others explained at length by The Economist, Esquire, HuffPo, Slate, Acculturated, our own Derek Thompson, Pacific Standard, etc. Summary: in tone, tipping inescapably implies a superior-inferior relationship, rather than straightforward contracted pay; and in practical effect it makes income inequalities worse rather than better, since (as Saru Jayaraman recently argued in the NYT) the very lowest-paid service workers aren’t in position to get tips.

The “Australian solution” — very high minimum wage, very little tipping — is for me the right objective, distant as it may be from today’s American practices. But I have considered Uber’s no-tipping norm a step in the right direction, as long as it is accompanied by overall earnings for drivers at least as high as they’d get in a normal fare-and-tip system.  (I do well realize how much dispute there is on this “as long as” point.) I am among a minority of Uber customers who wish that the company would raise its baseline mileage-and-time rates. As long as they match taxicab fares, rather than under-price them as they usually do now, Uber (and Lyft) will be more attractive than taxis; and with higher base fares there would be less need for surge pricing — and less temptation for drivers to post signs like the one I saw yesterday.

I’m just noting this as a social indicator of some sort. Is Uber pushing fares (and earnings) down too hard? Was this just one freebooting driver deciding to see what he could do? In a contest between Lyft’s “tips hoped for” ethic and “no tips expected” from Uber, will both coexist? Or is one destined to prevail? It is all to be revealed. But obviously I hope that higher wages, and fewer tips, win out.