One of the most difficult senior transitions in life is to have to give up the car. The day anyone has to hand over the keys at the insistence of concerned younger family members is traumatic to say the least. Some states, like Florida, make it easier because a person’s doctor can make the decision and be “The Bad Guy” rather than a family member. A letter from the doctor to the state DMV essentially ends the driving privilege leaving family members with the luxury of a Pontius Pilate (“my hands are clean”) state of affairs.
But who needs a license anyway now that the sharing economy brings us transportation services like Uber and Lyft? We were in New York City over the holidays visiting our children, including my two-year-old granddaughter, and had the first reason to download the Uber app to smart phones and start using the ride service. Lyft, their more conspicuous competitor whose cars have the signature pink mustaches, is not available yet in New York.
It’s so simple. You pull out your phone, dial up the Uber app and type in your location plus the place to which you want to go. Within 15 seconds, a nearby Uber driver gets back to you and says how many minutes it will be before they can pick you up. For about eight different trips, we never waited more than three minutes. What’s cool about the system is that as soon as you accept the pickup, there’s a map on your phone screen that shows the location of the car that is now on the way. You can watch it move closer block by block until, “voila!” “They’re here, everybody.”
It gets better. Uber and/or Lyft have all of your credit card information, so when you reach your destination, you just hop out of the car and go. No fumbling with bills, change, or sliding a credit card through the slot and waiting…waiting…for prompts to add a 10, 15, or 20 percent tip. It feels more like bumming a ride from a friend who happens to be going your way and who drops you off right where you need to go.
For the drivers, it’s a flexible income source that lends itself to alternative life styles. A retired former employee of mine in Lafayette told me that she has been an Uber driver for a year and is really enjoying the experience. She has developed some regular customers and routinely takes people to the airports or wherever. It’s a wonderful source of income for her and she enjoys driving anyway.
I made it a point to ask drivers how they liked working in the “sharing economy.” Without exception, they all loved it --- especially the technology. Some were professional drivers who worked for conventional car services as well, and Uber was their part-time job --- like a bus driver’s holiday.
An unintended consequence of this profusion of cars roaming city streets is that younger people are finding that they don’t need to own cars when they live in cities anymore. Who needs to deal with car payments, parking, insurance, maintenance and the general hassles of car ownership when there’s an option that works better for many. A further benefit that resonates with those of any age who like to enjoy a drink with friends is that they don’t have to limit themselves to a legal blood alcohol level below .08 percent --- something that just two glasses of wine over dinner will exceed. Those of us who carry our own breathalyzers and treasure our licenses know this for a fact.
The “sharing economy,” as columnist Willie Brown says, is just a business model that has managed to do an end run around centuries-old legal restrictions that hamper their traditional competitors. Uber, with a valuation of $42 billion should have the where-with-all to solve its problems, like inadequate insurance and background checks, without impeding what looks like a game-changing approach to how people transport themselves. As for retirees, the ease of getting around without one’s own wheels may ease the transition to giving up a driver’s license. But, what some retirees will miss the most, however, will be their own car bumper to which they could otherwise have affixed that popular sticker: “Ask me about my Grandchildren.”