Uber, Lyft, Taxis, Design and the Age of Ambivalence

Photo of Taxis and Cars by Antonio DiCaterina

The massive disruption that ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have visited on the taxi industry stirs up so many conflicting feelings for me. I use these services all the time but the larger impact of my patronage has been weighing on my conscience more and more lately. Not least because, from a certain perspective, it’s clear that design lays at the heart of both the genuine innovation and the disturbing dissonance of this transformation in transportation.

It’s no secret that Uber and Lyft, in order to justify their exorbitant market valuations, are barreling towards a future in which the way we move about cities is reinvented by autonomous vehicles. It’s at that point that they’ll be able to do away with the pesky expense of human drivers. And it’s also at that point that the companies will have decisively made the shift to true technological innovation.

Until that yet-to-be-determined date, the frank truth is that what propels these companies forward is not really technology innovation so much as design.

Of course, the ability to hail a car on your phone and then have your request instantly dispatched to a driver in your vicinity is an impressive technological feat. But the actual ride, the core of the value, is still technologically unchanged—you’re still being driven in a combustion engine vehicle by a human. (Even if your driver picks you up in a hybrid or electric car, that technology wasn’t brought to you by the app or these companies.)

The real innovation that Uber and Lyft have brought to bear is in the transformation of the user experience of your ride: the ability to gauge your driver’s distance from you; the presentment of the driver’s name and the make and model of his or her car; the option to follow along with the route to your destination; and then the prompt to rate and review your ride at the end. These are the kinds of things that make an Uber or Lyft ride fundamentally different from stepping off the curb and waving down a taxi. They rely on technology, of course, but really they amount to “designing the ride,” or the application of user-centric thinking to enhance the experience of being driven across town.

Uber vs. Lyft and Beatles vs. Stones

In a way ride hailing as a technology was commoditized almost as soon as it was birthed into the world. You can see this in how the basic functionality of both Uber and Lyft’s apps have largely stayed the same over the years while the design and branding approach of both apps has been updated and enhanced with great frequency. This doubtless reflects a recognition on the part of both companies that their technology is virtually indistinguishable from one another, at least to consumers. When a business finds itself in a position like that, one of the best ways to compete is with design.

All of this has yielded a kind of user experience boon to ride hailing customers. The apps seem to be continually, breathlessly one-upping each other with new interface features and slicker interactions, and they’re overhauled periodically with ambitious and sometimes dramatic redesigns. Put simply: the design of these apps is getting better all the time. It’s one of the closest equivalents to a Beatles/Stones rivalry that we’ve ever had in interaction design, and it’s been exciting to watch.

In the short history of our craft, you would think this could be regarded as an unalloyed success for the profession, and certainly as a triumph over the legacy taxi industry’s stodgy resistance to design. Before Lyft and Uber taxi and limousines had operated virtually unchanged for decades. (It was a big deal in the early 2000s when you could start using a credit card in New York City cabs, a laughingly incremental innovation.) And the experience of being driven by a hack was often erratic and inconvenient, to put it mildly. I recall ruefully the annoyance of trying to hail a taxi on busy weekend nights while at least three or four other people were doing the exact same thing on the same street corner. That’s when they’re available; hailing a cab in inclement weather has always been one of life’s least noble chores. And of course taxis and limousines have, at best, spotty reputations for picking up passengers of color, or for being available or timely in low income neighborhoods.

It’s almost as if, once we added design to the equation, everything got better. All of a sudden you could reliably get a ride on any street corner, at any time, almost without regard for how many other customers are competing for rides of their own. Rides are cheaper now, too, both because each Uber and Lyft transaction is essentially underwritten by investment capital and because you can know the cost before you even hail that ride. Taxi drivers can no longer “show you the park,” as they used to say when they took unsuspecting out-of-towners the long way round to their destinations.

Unintended Consequences

All these improvements were made possible by design, and they’ve made a difference—a huge one. There would be no “unicorn” valuation for Uber or Lyft if they hadn’t employed designers to fundamentally improve the taxi experience.

But of course, this isn’t the whole story, not by a longshot. The lightning speed with which ride hailing apps have captivated consumers has also brought some substantially troubling unintended consequences.

Rides have gotten cheaper for passengers, but it’s been shown repeatedly that driving for Uber and Lyft is not a great way to make a living. Drivers can often earn less than minimum wage, and there is a disturbing trend of suicides among economically struggling drivers.

To compound that problem, there is no path forward from driving into ownership. Cab drivers in many cities can eventually become licensees or medallion owners, building equity in their professions. In the past this has been a reliable trajectory for many immigrants who have been able to start as taxi drivers and become owners of small fleets of cabs, propelling them into middle class life. With the advent of Uber and Lyft, the value of medallions in New York City, for example, has fallen off a cliff, effectively wiping out the financial futures of countless drivers.

Whether you look at this disruption as either an unfair attack on a working class profession or as a basic and perhaps inevitable outcome of free market evolution, it’s much harder to dismiss the effect that Uber and Lyft are having on our physical world.

Where they once promised to lessen traffic, it’s now become clear that these services instead increase congestion—precipitiously. In a study of nine major metropolitan cities in the United States—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington—researchers estimate that ridership is adding as much as 5.7 billion miles of driving per year to streets.

This likely stems from the fact that customers aren’t hailing Uber and Lyft instead of driving their own cars. In fact, that same study suggests that at least half of the rides hailed on these services would not have been taken by car at all; they are journeys that customers would have taken by foot, bike or public transport, or perhaps even not at all. The gas consumption—and attendant pollution and environmental damage—required to support all of this additional driving is staggering. But think also about all of the fossil fuels that are required just to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to continually circulate around a city so that that there will always be one near you when you need it.

You Can Never Go Back (to Taxis)

Earlier I contended that very little of the innovative value of these services could’ve happened without design. Well here is the other side of that coin: At some point the total civic benefit of these services begins to look less like a misguided convenience and more like a lavish extravagance that none of us can afford. And the rapidity of design’s success here, combined with how lasting it’s likely to be makes this look more and more like a design-led calamity.

Uber and Lyft rose to prominence so quickly—in roughly just a half decade—but it seems unlikely that a solution to this predicament will happen nearly so quickly. As American society has proven again and again, it is unwilling to use roads less, only more. The habits that we’ve all formed so quickly around on-call, near instant ride-hailing are going to be incredibly difficult to reverse.

It’s not an option to just go back to the way taxis and limousines operated a decade ago. That legacy industry is not just in an economic shambles today, but it remains as problematic as ever. Even as it functioned as a gateway to the middle class for countless drivers, it’s been historically rife with transgressions and corruption. If anything, the design innovation in Uber and Lyft only served to highlight how generally unfit for the public the whole industry has long been.

Furthermore, even if there were some kind of a public campaigned waged to return to traditional cabs (and it would have to be an incredibly successful one to make an impact), the bell of ‘good design’ can’t be unrung. We’ve now seen how design can remake the experience of a cab and there’s no going back.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Uber and Lyft approach is the dual rating system for drivers and passengers. It’s been remarkable to me how it’s influenced my conduct as a passenger; I’m much less prone to being rude or even giving negative feedback directly to drivers knowing that they’ll be rating me as well.

But when I get into a taxi cab, not only do I find that I’m less personable with taxi drivers, but I also find that the reverse is true, too. In the past year, I’ve taken rides with yellow cab drivers who conduct private conversations on their phones and ignore me entirely; who disregard my requests to take certain roads to my destination; who cite their need to make short return deadlines as reasons why they can’t add stops to a trip; who are flagrantly untruthful about fare estimates; and who are just plain rude. If you have reservations about Uber and Lyft, the user experience of yellow cabs are not a compelling alternative.

Disruption vs. Design

Any sober assessment of this situation would likely conclude that there are elements of both traditional taxi service and ride hailing apps that are desirable. On the one hand, we want taxi driving to be a sustainable profession, with hack licenses and medallions distributed in reasonable quantities so as to mitigate congestion. On the other hand, we also want a good experience for our rides, we want technological innovations, and we want a mutually respectful relationship between rider and passenger. Right now the prospects for achieving that balance seem very remote.

The widely dissatisfactory nature of this current situation suggests to me that design as a force for “disruption” is deeply problematic. If you look at this mess we’re in, it’s pretty clear that all that we’ve done here is disrupt the status quo. While there is merit to that, as a profession we’ve allowed ourselves to be swept up too easily by the enormous emphasis (read: economic value) that the tech industry has placed on the concept of disruption.

It’s reasonable to look at the Uber and Lyft experiment as an attempt to redesign everything about taxis. In some ways the attempt has been unexpectedly successful—if you had told me a decade ago that this market would become one of the most consequential proving grounds for design ideas ever, there would have been no way I’d have believed you. But that’s what it’s become.

Design has disrupted taxis in a massive, almost unprecedented way. But good design doesn’t merely aim to disrupt—it should set out to actually build viable solutions. Designers shouldn’t look at a problem and say, “What we’re going to do is just fuck it up and see what happens.” That’s a dereliction of duty.

But in a very real sense, that’s just what design has done with this challenge of how people get driven across town. Design has focused on the details: on the challenge of getting the interface just right; on “optimizing the funnel” for new and lapsed customers; on fine-tuning the choreography between app notifications, driver interactions and payment; and on outfoxing the competition. Meanwhile, the bigger picture has gone largely ignored.


It’s difficult to write a post like this without implying bad behavior on the part of the teams, past or present, who work on these products. That’s not my intention.

There’s a tough discussion to be had here about responsibility. That includes the question of “To what extent should the Uber and Lyft design teams, past and present, be held accountable for the creation of this inescapable new challenge of modern life?” But we should also ask, “To what extent should the entire design industry be held responsible for peddling our relentlessly sunny prognostications of how design can improve the human condition, all without regard for deeper discussions as to the meaning and impact of our work?”

If anything, this situation reflects poorly on the entire design industry—and on our inability to connect our work with the larger context of what we put into the world. I’ve argued before that as a profession we’re inexperienced at this level of discussion and thoughtfulness. There is a long road ahead to being able to incorporate this kind of awareness into our work methods in a way that’s productive and complementary, rather than at odds, with the companies that employ us.

By the same token, that hardly absolves design in the present. The teams at Uber and Lyft have a responsibility to engage in a dialogue, privately and publicly, about the impact of their work. And we all have a responsibility to ask questions about that very same subject, to hold all of us, together as an industry, responsible for the outcomes of our craft. We can’t think of ourselves merely as disrupters. When we take on a challenge, when we endeavor to apply our tools and thinking and labor to problems, we have to commit ourselves to producing complete, viable and sustainable solutions. We have to finish the whole job.

Photo by Antonio DiCaterina on Unsplash.