When technology is designed to fail

When technology is designed to fail

Not everybody knows this, but I drove for Uber and Lyft for about a year and half in 2018 and 2019. I drove and took notes and then wrote a book about the experience. Actually, two books. One in French, and one in English

By far the most awful part was all the sitting and the being stuck in traffic. The best part was getting to know cool people — including meeting, entirely by chance, the most beautiful human in the world who is now my best friend and beloved.

I learned a lot driving for money, mostly about the kind of people who live in my city, those who visit, and how we so badly organize how we move around that too many people are forced to rely on transportation services that, while reasonably practical at least from the point of view of the user, are nowhere near affordable when you take all costs into consideration, not just the fare price. Which, by the way, is especially steep for people at the lower end of the economic ladder. 

Ride-hailing is also terrible for reducing the number of kilometers driven in private vehicles. You’d think it should be the opposite, since — as the theory goes — people don’t need to buy a car when they can rely on walking, transit, and the occasional Uber. Alas, the theory is just that. 

In this fascinating text by Jeff Speck, author of The Walkable City, we get some distressing stats. For instance, that for every 10 miles travelled by a ride-hailing customer, the car itself has to travel 16.9 miles due to “dead-heading.” That’s what we call the part of the trip during which the Uber or Lyft driver goes from wherever they are to pick up the customer, time and distance for which the driver is not compensated. 

The initial theory behind ride-hailing was that, by making most of the costs of driving variable rather than fixed, people would ditch their cars and drive less. The exact opposite seemed to be happening. Car ownership was not dropping, and between dead-heading and customers stolen from other modes, each Uber and Lyft ride represented more than a tripling of automotive vehicle miles traveled.

Seen at the micro-level of your own personal situation, these easy, convenient, private transportation services can make a lot of sense. I take Uber (or Lyft) myself every now and then, mostly when I need to get to the airport. It’s rare that parking my own car is cheaper than a ride there and back in Uber. 

Maybe you only take it when you visit a different city, because you find it more congenial or cheaper than taxis. Or maybe you very sensibly take it when you go out and know you’ll be drinking and don’t want to do a stupid and illegal thing. 

Those are all great reasons to Uber. And now that we know and appreciate the convenience of being able to call for a car at 3:25 am and know one will show up within minutes to take us to the airport in comfort and style for a reasonable fee, we can’t imagine taking it away. 


There is a massive cost to those services, and the people who are paying most of it are not the privileged few. They are taxi drivers who have seen their business disappear and — as I explain in my books, rather at length — people who work odd hours outside of downtown for low pay. They don’t earn enough to buy their own car and don’t have access to convenient transit, so they wind up spending a scary high proportion of their income on Uber rides just to get to and from work. 

And then there’s the transit system itself, deprived of riders it can’t serve. Low ridership leads to canceled routes and those lead to lower ridership and down and down we go until we barely have transit anymore except downtown and more and more people are pushed towards private vehicles because they have to get to where they need to be. 

There’s a lot more interesting stuff in that piece, including on autonomous vehicles. Very much worth the time and brain space to read. But please remember this, for the next time someone proposes using technology instead of modified human behaviour to solve social problems. Technology just might make it worse.