Back-seat confidential: How ride hailing is changing the social lives of L.A.’s millennials

November 7, 2019 0 By JohnValbyNation

A few weeks ago, Sam Lim, the cofounder of Hipdot, a vegan makeup line, ordered an UberPool to get from her home in West Hollywood to a meeting in Venice. She found herself sharing the ride with not one but two companions. “It was crazy,” she recalled. “I was in the car with two other women plus the driver. We slowly started talking to each other, then as we started to open up, we realized each of us had a recent breakup story.”

“Front-seat girl,” as Lim, 34, called her, had broken up with her boyfriend, who had planned a business trip on their anniversary. “Back-seat girl” had caught her boyfriend cheating via a mutual friend’s Instagram.

“Then the driver chimed in,” said Lim. “Her ‘baby daddy’ was having a child with someone else, and she had just had his baby in January. And he was in jail when he found out about the second baby!”

Just moments before that ride, these four women were total strangers hailing from different parts of the city and different spheres of existence and unlikely to meet under other circumstances. Somewhere between West Hollywood and Venice, they experienced a moment of surprising intimacy, sharing stories they might not have told otherwise — stories they might not have even shared with relatives, colleagues or other members of their everyday lives. Had any one of the three passengers requested her ride just a few minutes later or chosen to go to the Valley instead of Venice, this experience may not have transpired.

Los Angeles is a city known not only for its car culture but also for not having an easily navigable or efficient mass transit system. So the arrival of ride-hailing apps like UberPool and Lyft’s shared rides (which until recently were known as “Lyft Line”) has proven to be a radical proposition for city residents. About 20% of Uber’s active riders in L.A. used UberPool at least once this summer, said a company spokesperson. (Pool rides can be less than half the cost of a solo ride; Lim’s ride cost $4.37)

“It’s a fun, unique experience to share a ride with a stranger because you’re not expecting anything lasting,” said Michael Gobo, a 28-year-old advertising account manager who lives in Mar Vista. “You sort of go into it thinking this person will be in your life for a specific and short amount of time, and there’s something nice about that.”

But as a frequent rider, Gobo has strong opinions about pooling etiquette. “After a long day of work a few weeks ago, I was tired as all hell. I ordered a Lyft shared ride, got in, and there were already two other passengers,” he said. “The passenger in the front did not shut up the whole time. And the other passenger in the back seat was eating a full meal out of some Tupperware. It had a really strong odor that was pretty nauseating.”

Elizabeth Denton, 35, is a freelance beauty writer who relocated to downtown L.A. in 2018. Having lived in New York City for 10 years, she never needed a driver’s license and still isn’t convinced she needs one now. She takes UberPool multiple times per week to get from her apartment to various work events and appointments across the city, and her experiences have been mixed. “One time this girl flipped out because I opened the door and she had the entire back seat set up like a vanity,” said Denton. “Her products were out, and she was putting on a full face of makeup. I politely asked if she could move her stuff, and she got so mad and screamed at me to sit in the front. I was like, ‘I’m not sitting in the front; it’s weird to sit in the front.’

“People are so entitled for taking like a $4 Pool ride,” she continued. “Then there’s always the people talking on their phone in the Pool or asking to be dropped off first. I’m like, ‘If you want to behave that way, just order a regular Uber.’”

While Denton says most of her Pool coriders are never seen or heard from again, on rare occasions, they have kept in touch. “Once in a while there is good energy. Recently the driver was a woman and super nice, and it was all girls in the car. The driver was a musician, everyone had cool jobs and we all really connected and decided to exchange Instagrams. They still ‘like’ my pictures every now and again.” Travel publicist Tatia Pacey, 24, uses UberPool to commute to work every day. Having grown up in Singapore, Korea and Taiwan, she “never really had the opportunity to learn how to drive,” so she relies on ride-hailing apps to get from her apartment in West Hollywood to her office in Santa Monica.

During one encounter this spring, she shared a ride with an up-and-coming musician, a young woman about her age, and the two hit it off. “We connected on Instagram,” says Pacey. “She let me know about an upcoming gig she had in Silver Lake. I passed the invite along to a few friends, and we all ended up going, and it was a great night. I haven’t seen her since, but every now and again we like each other’s stuff on Instagram.”

A similar encounter happened to Los Feliz resident Aparna Balakumar, 23, who originally hails from Sydney. She is licensed to drive in Australia but is so accustomed to driving on the opposite side of the road that she has yet to commit to a car of her own in California. She too relies on ride-hailing apps to get around the city.

While shared rides often begin as awkward, silent affairs, said Balakumar, the conversation tends to start rolling when fellow passengers hear her Australian accent. On one occasion, it wasn’t until several minutes into the ride that Balakumar broke the ice and started to make small talk, at which time both women realized they were the same age and both recent transplants to Los Angeles from Australia. “We really hit it off,” said Balakumar. “We exchanged numbers and kept in touch, then a few weeks later met up for a drink and had a fun night out. It can be so hard to meet people in L.A. because everyone is in their car, alone all the time, so who knows if we would have met otherwise.”

On some occasions Angelenos have found romantic connections through ride-hailing.

On a different instance this spring, Balakumar shared a ride with a man about her age. “We got to talking about whereabouts in the city we worked, and it turns out our offices are in buildings opposite each other. We probably pass by each other every day but had never met.”

The conversation then turned toward what the two liked to do in their free time and then toward comedy, “something he was pursuing.” Balakumar could sense her destination was coming up and that their time together would soon come to an end if she didn’t speak up — so she did.

“I was like, ‘There’s so much cool performing arts stuff to see in L.A., we should go to something sometime,’ and he agreed, then we exchanged numbers. It was so smooth and really unlike me. We went to a comedy show a few nights later and got a drink and it was really pleasant. I don’t think either of us was feeling anything romantic, but it was a fun night.”

The aspiring comedian texted her again after their initial date, but Balakumar did not write back. “I wasn’t that into it; I was mostly just proud of myself for making a move,” she said. “So many times you jump out of the car before you get a chance to exchange details with someone, and you might never see them again.”

Candor, it turns out, can have its rewards. Such was the case for fashion stylist Tiffani Newkirk, who took an UberPool from her home in Hollywood in December 2017. “I never use Uber, but Lyft was surging really bad,” said Newkirk. “Lance was sitting in the back seat when I got in, and I’m a talker. My mom taught me that you can always judge a man by his shoes, whether they’re clean or dirty, and Lance had nice shoes on. So I started talking to him about his shoes, and we got to talking and exchanged numbers. The next day he hit me up and asked me to the movies.”

“I brought her to see ‘Star Wars,’ then after the movies we went out dancing to this West African place in South Central,” said Lance Bryant.

One month later Newkirk’s and Bryant’s mothers suffered health conditions that required surgery, at which time Newkirk realized her connection with Bryant was deeper than a casual fling. “We were placed together for a reason,” she said.

Ten months after their initial ride, the two were married.