Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are putting traditional cab drivers out of business, changing nightlife in heavy-drinking, car-centric cities like Los Angeles — and raising some surprising parenting questions.
Hiring a car at the drop of a pin to collect your child from school or a friend's house, particularly when your child is on the other side of the 405, is initially intoxicating. You open the application and a car is dispatched to pick up Mommy's little monster. Mommy herself, or Daddy, never has to leave the office or home. It could be the most revolutionary technology, or at least the most revolutionary app, in the history of parenting. Yet steady Uber usage gives rise to numerous safety and social issues, which naturally I'm doing my best to ignore.
Facing the prospect of a long rush hour trip across Los Angeles to pick up a child, many parents have done a version of this calculation: the number of hours it will take to get there and back, and the torture of slogging through yet another commute-sized drive, versus the chance your child will be abducted, and perhaps actually tortured, by the complete stranger you are thinking of hiring to pick her up.
Although Uber and Lyft both promise security checks and background screening of drivers, there have been more than a dozen allegations of sexual assault, groping, kidnapping and beatings. Entire websites are devoted to listing Uber incidents and assaults. Still, Uber is doing more than 1 million rides a day, and if there is one — OK, say two — incidents a day, that means the odds of something awful actually happening to your child are something like (and I've never been very good at math) 1 million to 2. That's a 0.0000002% chance of a tragedy.
It's 5:30 p.m and my daughter is two very crowded freeways away. Statistically, I convince myself, Uber seems about as safe as driving her myself. So I sit back, have a drink and anxiously gaze at the progress of her driver on my phone, ready to call the cops if the car icon takes a suspicious turn.
Once satisfied that the rewards for parents outweigh the risks to offspring, a range of second-level issues arise for the Ubering family. Among them, the fact that there are fewer opportunities to meet your children's friends' parents. No need to drive across town for a post-play date pickup means no chance to stand in the doorway, make small talk and ascertain that these supposed "parents" are actually sexual predators who have hired child actors to lure your precious babes into their home.
There was a period of my life, when my children were still in elementary school, that their friends' parents also became my good friends. The process of dropping off and picking up, of having a glass of wine standing around a kitchen island while my daughters gathered their backpacks and whatever creative work they had been doing that afternoon — "No, please, you can keep that!," "No, please, take it" — was enough time to discern whether this fellow mom or dad was a potential buddy. And often, for some reason, if our kids got along, the parents also clicked.
I miss those initially awkward conversations about teachers, sports, the weather, that can take surprisingly convivial turns. Sometimes, that stiff lawyer who wears sweaters a size or two too small can turn out, on second or third meeting, to have a pretty wicked sense of humor. Now I couldn't pick my children's best friends' parents out of a police lineup, if it ever came to that. That's an unexpected Uber effect.
But forget my social life. Another Uber effect is diminished family life. Each of us was already a digital island, spending hours a day behind our devices, each with our own social media feeds, our own streaming shows, our own music. In the past, we at least had those long car rides together, distracted conversations in which every party is filling dead road time, and in that desperation to break the long silence, ideas, notions, desires and even the loves (or at least "likes") of my daughters would come into focus, one begrudging sentence at a time.
Do my daughters talk to their Uber drivers now? Do they confide in them instead of me?
Last Sunday, my younger daughter went to Six Flags Magic Mountain with some friends. The mother of one of the girls drove her back to her house in Venice. My wife was busy. I had just come back from a four-mile run and had some work that needed to get done before Monday morning. (OK, OK, I wanted to watch football.) My wife texted me. "Uber for Lola?"
I responded no. No! We're going to have one of our road talks, my daughter and I, get all caught up after the long weekend. I drove down to Venice to pick her up. And she slept the whole way home.
Karl Taro Greenfeld is a writer whose most recent novel is "The Subprimes."