In the 1996 movie “Carpool,” a busy father’s turn driving the neighborhood kids to school goes haywire when a bank robber played by Tom Arnold takes the family minivan hostage. There’s bathroom humor, singing and a madcap detour through the local shopping mall. Hilarious.
For New Jersey Uber driver Zogie Ella, carpooling is no laughing matter. On days when she is drawn into Uber’s version of the venerable American tradition, known as Uber Pool, she says her anxiety skyrockets.
“It’s a feeling of not knowing whether or not your passengers are going to bond or clash over any little thing,” says Ms. Ella, 36 years old.
A couple of months ago, she picked up two customers who battled before her eyes.
“The second passenger got in and requested that I turn the radio on,” says Ms. Ella. “As I reached to turn it on, the first passenger said she preferred for there to be no music during the ride.”
A miffed passenger No. 2 decided to play a Justin Bieber tune on her phone and sing along. This prompted passenger No. 1 to play music from her phone as well, even louder. Her choice: Selena Quintanilla. The ride turned into the equivalent of a drunken night at a karaoke bar.
“I kept wondering if they somehow knew each other. There’s no way two strangers could be that crazy and passionate about outdoing the other in singing,” says Ms. Ella, whose own musical tastes run to jazz and blues. “They had no shame. They both sounded like crying cats. It was absolutely dreadful.”
Carpooling has a long history in America. It first became prominent in the U.S. as a rationing tactic during World War II, and regained popularity in the 1970s during the energy crisis.
Over the years, a certain etiquette took hold. The poolers knew they’d have to face each other the next morning, and the next, so people tended to be on their best behavior.
Then came Carpooling 2.0.
Ride-sharing pioneers Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc., under pressure to lower their fares, responded with Uber Pool and Lyftline in August 2014. Unlike the traditional services, which offered rides for a single passenger or group of passengers at a time, the pooling options allow several unconnected riders to share the costs.
But the algorithm hasn’t solved for cads.
“These days, I’m always worried about if I’m going to get in a car with a passenger who is new to pooling and won’t know how to behave properly,” says Omar Paten, a 36-year-old Brooklyn resident who pines for his carpool of yore in Atlanta, where he grew up. “It was like there were unwritten rules that everyone knew to follow. No one would eat, no one would smoke, no one would play loud music just out of respect for others.”
Brooke Anderson, head of global safety communications at Uber, says the company app makes it easy for drivers to rate and report passengers, and vice versa. “We want every Uber ride to be a great one,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for everyone in the car to treat each other with respect and just be nice. It makes all the difference.”
One loophole in the app: You can’t rate an obnoxious fellow rider, or even learn who they are, beyond a first name that disappears when the ride is over.
Vanessa Graham didn’t bother to rate one recent ride—she just decided to swear off ride-sharing. The 26-year-old Queens native says her early-morning commute to Manhattan was shattered by a booming beat after two co-passengers joined the ride and plugged an iPhone into the car’s auxiliary cord. Then they started freestyle rapping.
“Hi, excuse me, do you mind changing the music?” she says she asked. “That’s all I said. Seriously, you would’ve thought I asked for a lung or a kidney!”
After being told by her co-passengers to either deal with it or exit the Uber Pool, she sat back in misery. Throughout the 30-minute “ride from hell” the Uber driver didn’t utter a peep in her defense, says Ms. Graham.
Alex Rosenblat, Researcher & Technical Writer at the Data & Society Institute and Author of “Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work,” says that drivers generally dislike Uber Pool and perceive that they get lower ratings as a result of inter-passenger conflicts.
“Passenger conflicts are a common complaint amongst drivers,” she says. “They feel that it’s more passenger management and conflict management for little financial gain.”
Cherelle Sheppard, a New York City fashion designer, says that on rare occasions when she uses Lyft Line, another NYC ride share service, she is always shocked by her co-passenger’s behavior.
She vowed to never use a pooling service again after using Lyft Line two months ago. She shared it with a middle-aged man who insisted on riding with no air conditioning.
“It was 95 degrees outside! My makeup was literally melting off in the car,” said Ms. Sheppard. Most egregiously he insisted that she was a spoiled American princess who didn’t understand the real struggles of life. “He told me that AC was a luxury not a necessity, and that he never drove with the AC on any of his personal cars. I laughed out loud.”
All pooling experiences haven’t left all passengers fussing over trivial things. Some even build momentary friendships.
Last year Ms. Ella picked up a few passengers who were on their way to a Garth Brooks concert at the Newark Prudential Center. The radio station happened to be playing his songs and for the first time ever, everyone agreed on the music. As the passengers sang along to “Two Piña Coladas,” Ms. Ella drove in bliss.
“It was like a happy sing-along. I was so relieved.” she says.