Riding with Strangers

SideCar Is the Best Thing to Happen to Hitchhiking Since the Invention of Thumbs

Riding with Strangers

Jon Adams

In our society, the stranger represents the unknown in the equation of our interactions with others. Is the stranger going to help or harm me? Because we do not know what to think, and because we live in a media environment that never misses an opportunity to warn us of the dangers of the street, of the night, of young men who wear hoodies, it's more prudent to assume the worst: The stranger is a robber, a rapist, a killer. Our defenses go up. But anyone who lives in the city is actually more dependent on strangers than on family or friends. Strangers grow our food, package our food, prepare our food, serve our food. They manage the quality of the water we drink, drive our children to school, deliver the mail, fly our planes. Without strangers doing all of these useful things for us, we would be nothing but savage, wild animals with nowhere to run or hide.

You might argue that these strangers are only helpful because they are paid to be. If they do not help me, they will not get paid. If they don't get paid, they will have no money and suffer the pains of poverty. Adam Smith, the father of this kind of market-oriented thinking, said this in The Wealth of Nations. If, for example, a shopkeeper is not friendly to his/her customers, many of whom are strangers, the shopkeeper will lose business and end up poor. But the usefulness of strangers is much deeper than the logic of the market. It is, I think, a central part of human sociality. Humans are made for strangers; we have the ability not only to trust them but also to endure them. As the great sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy pointed out at the opening of her book Mothers and Others, a planeload of humans is not the same as a planeload of chimps. The former can easily (and usually do) fly for 16 hours without an incident; the latter, however, could not "disembark [a plane] with all 10 fingers and toes still attached, with the babies still breathing and unmaimed. Bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles. Compressing so many highly impulsive strangers into a tight space would be a recipe for mayhem."

The first time I used SideCar, a new app-enabled car-sharing service that began in San Francisco and started operating in Seattle four months ago, I was excited by the fact that the driver was not only a complete stranger but he also owned the car. I was entering the stranger's private space. This is not what happens when I enter a bus; the driver doesn't own it, and so the bus is a neutral space. With SideCar, private space becomes connected with public space. Indeed, the blurring of these usually distinct categories produces new and unexpected feelings. It's kind of like walking into a stranger's house, sitting on their couch, and watching TV with them. Of course you feel a little odd (is this intrusive? How do we talk? What is the structure of our relationship?), and it takes some effort to find the appropriate attitude. My driver that first night was a white man named Lee (the app gave me his name, a picture of him, and a picture of the kind of car he was driving—a Mitsubishi i electric vehicle); he is a systems administrator at Google. He also has another car that he rents out through RelayRides. He is a member of the Seattle Transit Riders Union. He is a drone pilot. He spoke to me not like a person who is working but like a person I met at a party. But at a party, we always ask the stranger we meet in the kitchen how they know the host. What connects him to us? But all that connected me and Lee was my need to get home and his ability to meet this need.

To confuse matters even more, I sat in the front seat. The general understanding with SideCar is that it's not cool to sit in the back—that's what cabs are for, and SideCar is different from cabs. "Sometimes, I will pick up two people who want to talk about things, and so it's cool if they sit in the backseat," explained Lee. "But if you are alone, I prefer you sit in the front."

After our conversation drifted this way and that, it finally settled on politics. We talked about the need to share things. We live in a society that has too much stuff, and this way of living is simply unsustainable. Lee is a citizen of the green city. A big part of his involvement with SideCar is it reinforces an ethic of urban environmentalism. When we reached my destination, the app on the phone suggested I give him $14 as a donation (the ride was from Capitol Hill to Columbia City). It was up to me to pay more or less or none of this amount. There was no haggling, no fuss about cards or cash. I just quietly pressed the red button, the app did its thing, Lee was paid $14, and I climbed out of the car without saying a word about money.

Kelli picked me up on Sunday afternoon from the Twilight Exit. She wore a hat and sunglasses, and she arrived in a car that was not pictured on the app. This produced some confusion, but she explained that her usual car was in the garage. I sat next to her. Between us was a gadget that I did not recognize. It was being recharged. Did it have something to do with SideCar? No, she told me, it was a recorder that she uses for band practices. She is in a band? Yes, she is. What is the band? An all-women big band called the Mood Swings that play swing-era jazz. (From the band's website: "2 cups Sammy Nestico, 1 1/2 cups Duke Ellington, 1 cup Gershwin, 1 cup Latin Spice, 2 tablespoons Funk, a pinch of attitude—blended all together.") Kelli is the drummer of this band. Kelli also offers karaoke for her passengers. "It's on my iPad. I put it on the dashboard, and you can pick a song and sing as I drive." Some drivers also have bottled water, or candy, or condoms, I'm told. It's all very social, very useful, very practical. I gave Kelli $11.

Willie picked me up from the Quarter Lounge on a Friday night in a 2012 Nissan Sentra. He works in social services. He is black American. He has plans to study theology. He has been with SideCar for three months. What he doesn't get is why it took people so long to come up with this kind of service—connecting people with cars to people who need rides. His guess? We live in a society that sometimes makes the most obvious things so hard to see.

This was the substance of the conversation I had with Willie, who is very friendly and thoughtful: What made SideCar possible are smartphones. Without this technology, it would not have been possible to keep people in check and ensure the safety of both drivers and passengers. The SideCar app keeps track of you and the person who is driving you. And at the end of the ride, you rate the driver and the driver rates you, and if you give your driver a rating of less than four out of five, the app will ask if you'd like to block this driver from seeing future ride requests from you. All of this is nothing but the appropriation of corporate quality-control techniques and police surveillance technologies to make a new form of communal sharing possible. This, I think, is the genius of the service: It uses systems of control to liberate us from a society that systematically encourages self-centered, individualistic, antisocial behavior (look at the success of our bankers), a society that for years has generated nightmare after nightmare around the figure of the hitchhiker (usually a murderer who has just escaped from prison), a society that's made us fear the most useful person known to humans: the stranger. I paid Willie $13 and, as with the other strangers who drove me around town, gave him the best rating possible: five stars. recommended


Comments (40) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Sharing rides like this is common in plenty of places (Russia comes to mind), but what makes this different is that it automatically excludes anyone without a smart phone and data plan. I mention this not to pass judgement, but because I'm surprised that Mudede of all people wouldn't have addressed the underlying class issues here.
Posted by superflat on April 3, 2013 at 12:01 PM · Report this
GlibReaper 2
People with smartphones and data plans can proxy requests for others, though.

Also, pickups with the collaborative navigation and ridesharing app 'Waze' work on any device that can receive email or SMS.
Posted by GlibReaper on April 3, 2013 at 12:09 PM · Report this
GlibReaper 3
Also, drivers keep 80% of the donations after SideCar takes it's cut for providing the service of connecting them with riders, doing background checks and various other promotional stuff.

The Seattle launch was covered previously: http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archive…
Posted by GlibReaper on April 3, 2013 at 12:21 PM · Report this
I'm a little disappointed they require cars from 2000 and newer. I wanted to be paid to give people rides in my 45 year old station wagon.
Posted by The CHZA on April 3, 2013 at 4:36 PM · Report this
I would never use a service like this. You do realize that if your friendly driver gets into an accident, their insurance isn't going to pay a dime of your medical bills, because non-commercial insurance doesn't cover using your vehicle as a private taxi? Way to play roulette with your future.
Posted by Schance on April 3, 2013 at 7:16 PM · Report this
GlibReaper 6
@5 if you pick up a hitchhiker and they give you money then you get into an accident, does your insurance not cover them?

What if you arrange the ride on Craigslist first?

How about sending out a Tweet offering any responding party a ride?

Please support your claims with a reference, if you're able.
Posted by GlibReaper on April 3, 2013 at 8:41 PM · Report this
Leave it to a bunch of greedy douchebags in Seattle to turn hitch hiking into a fee-based system. And leave it to the Stranger to let one of its writers be the sort of whore who re-writes some venture capitalist's press release.

I'd say you fuckwads should be ashamed of yourselves and your corruption, but you're incapable of it.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 4, 2013 at 12:56 AM · Report this
GlibReaper 8
SideCar is originally based in San Francisco and continues to operate in the Golden State, in case you want to be precise in the projection of your vitriol.

I've given and will continue to give free rides to people. Services like SideCar help people who are hesitant to try ridesharing with their peers get over their fear. Why do you hate the sharing economy?
Posted by GlibReaper on April 4, 2013 at 7:37 AM · Report this
This is really no different than a taxi. Did you never know that taxis existed?
Posted by BenjaminW on April 4, 2013 at 7:38 AM · Report this
I just checked my auto insurance policy, and #5 is correct.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 4, 2013 at 10:36 AM · Report this
Quite a long boring article devoted to a product. It seems The Stranger is turning to the infomercial zine.
Posted by liberty4all on April 4, 2013 at 11:49 AM · Report this
#11, between stuff like this and the shilling for McGinn, Paul Allen, and apodments, it's pretty clear that the Stranger is a leisure time service for Seattle's real estate whores, billionaires, and their servant class.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 4, 2013 at 11:52 AM · Report this
@12 it's always easy to shit out conspiracy theories but difficult to fill in the details, which is why nobody ever does.
Posted by The CHZA on April 4, 2013 at 12:55 PM · Report this
If this business is deemed to be legal and catches on it could put cabbies out of business. It would be great for old people who wanted to quit owning a car and for young people with a car and no job. Putting a young child in car seat in back and carrying passengers in front might pay better than a minimum wage job and child care bills.

On the other hand, what does the IRS say? I suspect it is taxable income, same as tips for food service and hotel employees. Still could be better than a minimum wage job. But then insurance companies would go bjerk. And if the money was taxable then the miliage should be deductable.

In other words, it could work as long as it didn't become popular.
Posted by billwald on April 4, 2013 at 5:11 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 15
I feel bad for whop ever picked up Charles, it is going to take weeks for the stench to dissipate from their vehicles.

If this is how he keeps his desk at work imagine how disgusting his house is.

A lazy marxist?
Whoda thunk it?
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on April 4, 2013 at 7:25 PM · Report this
16 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Charles Mudede 17
I must have been under some kind of spell. I had no idea I was writing about Halliburton. I thought I was writing about a car sharing service. The devil has so many tricks.
Posted by Charles Mudede on April 5, 2013 at 8:14 AM · Report this
Hang in there Charles, the devil doesn't usually fuck with us lazy marxists for more than a few days.
Posted by d.colonel.eyes on April 5, 2013 at 9:40 AM · Report this
jeffsd 19
Is there a blow job instead of cash option? If not then its nothing like hitch hiking.
Posted by jeffsd on April 5, 2013 at 1:20 PM · Report this
Paying to hitchhike? Get the fuck out of here.
Posted by bill3737bill on April 5, 2013 at 4:45 PM · Report this
To speak beyond my, above, immediate reaction: This is the Disneyfying of hitchhiking, making it, apparently, nice and safe, all for a small fee and a bit of the gas money. To me, and I think other riders would agree,it defeats a good chunk of the purpose. Hitchhiking is meant to be free, it should be a little dangerous, and it sure as hell shouldn't require a smartphone. I just don't understand why someone scared of hitchhiking for free, the way it has been done forever would want to instead pay for a cheaper, less meaningful experience. But to each their own, as for me I'll be on the on-ramp with my thumb out.
Posted by bill3737bill on April 5, 2013 at 5:07 PM · Report this
Anyone who operates their car as a taxicab, which is what that system enables, had sure as fuck better check the insurance policy. Accidents are called accidents for a reason, and if you crash while you're carrying that passenger you could be in for a financially devastating surprise.

Think the shysters at SideCar or their whores at the Stranger are going to tell you about that? You'd better think again. Oh, and so you know, damn few accidents are ruled 100% anyone's fault. So if you think your superior driving skills are going to protect you, then you'd better think about that one too.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 5, 2013 at 6:23 PM · Report this
It occurs to me that SideCar is taking a cut, so they might also be liable for operating as the taxicab dispatcher. Stay tuned!
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 5, 2013 at 7:10 PM · Report this
is anyone reminded of the electronic thumb in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? (Reading this from the UK the only clever thing we do here is to flag down minicabs then phone them from the kerb to make the booking official. You are only legally allowed to flag a black cab).
Posted by HUX88 on April 6, 2013 at 12:37 PM · Report this
is anyone reminded of the electronic thumb in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? (In the UK the only clever thing we do here is to flag down minicabs then phone them from the kerb to make the booking official. You are only legally allowed to flag a black cab).
Posted by HUX88 on April 6, 2013 at 12:41 PM · Report this
Damn, why is everyone flaming this article? He made it clear payment was optional.

It seemed to me that the overall point was that it encourages ridesharing which is a very green option for commuters. And if it has the potential to earn you a quick buck while doing a service for someone else, why the hell not?
Posted by Proteus013 on April 6, 2013 at 4:05 PM · Report this
As a regular Sidecar user of 5 months. The app's suggested donation is about $3/$4 cheaper than a cab 100% of the time. Other things I love about the app is that the drivers call and warn you of their eta. I don't ever have to stand out in the cold to make sure the driver doesn't miss my house, I can finish putting on lipstick/playing with jewelry until the moment the driver arrives bc the app lets me watch the ride approach my house on the map. I've found this way of getting around extremely convenient, cheap and fun! My biggest worry is that my favorite drivers get snatched up while ridership rises! Of course, that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make if that means those same drivers can make serious dough connecting the most hip and social Sidecar riders with the thriving nightlife in Seattle. Getting around cheaper lets me spend more while I'm enjoying my night!
Posted by luckilylady on April 6, 2013 at 10:44 PM · Report this
This article is ridiculous. So is this service actually. It's hardly a legal service, and plays very unfairly with the competition. The fact that Charles can't look past the convenience and tries to sell it as a subculture says everything about the Charles character. You can easily replace 'Sidecar' with 'Walmart', and the article would be just as relevant. How convenient! And by the way, their insurance is definitely not protecting you, and you also may want to read the fine print when you agree to download the app. You've signed away any liability whatsoever on sidecars end. Ignorance is bliss I suppose.
Posted by Whocares83 on April 7, 2013 at 12:30 AM · Report this
I, too, think the article is lame. At least it could have raised the question of whether the system is safe. Sure, several rides and no mishaps sounds good. Ratings help.

But people are fickle. Maybe on the 30th ride, the passenger turns wolf. Maybe the recovering sex offender looses it after 3 years.

Personally, I have no idea what the track record of SideCar is. Nor do I know what safeguards they have in place and how effective the are compared to, say, taxi services. I would have found a more indepth story helpful.
Posted by pragmatition on April 7, 2013 at 9:31 AM · Report this
Yes, #27, and because it runs on smart phones, your driver will probably be a lot whiter than one of those grotty dark foreign cab drivers. Extra benefit for Seattle's yuppie wannabes, no?
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 7, 2013 at 11:30 AM · Report this
For once I thought well this is a well written article... until about half way down.
#1 is right, this system favors those with money, thus using (not really creating) a certain class system. And puts a dampener on the Hippy side of life we enjoy in the PNW, after all, you're a hipster hippy if you own a smartphone and can afford it's data plan (for the most part yes, I know there are exceptions but if you have a Iphone (any version) or a new (<2 year old) smart phone, you're no hippy in my book).

Since when does a stranger offer you the use of their phone nowadays anyway? You got to stop trolling Glib, if this was your article and you were trying to counter points made by your readers I would understand, otherwise, say your point and leave.

The concern about private insurance not covering commercial driving (which this is) is totally valid, even if the website does offer compensation if you get caught (ei in a accident.

The more I think about it the more I come to the realization that this really just looks like a advertisement in disguise of a news article... an infomercial of sorts. Shame on you The Stranger for selling out like this.
Posted by PBR-not a hippy I know on April 7, 2013 at 11:35 AM · Report this
GlibReaper 32
@31 if you want to lecture someone about trolling, try doing it from a registered account. Also, you fail to understand that someone can request a ride on another's behalf; The system doesn't currently restrict requests to the reported location of the phone.

On the larger scale, what do you expect people to do as their metro services get cut? Unless HB 1959 somehow passes, there's going to be much more ridesharing to come.
Posted by GlibReaper on April 7, 2013 at 9:25 PM · Report this
#32, maybe Metro will have to live within its means. Terrible thought!
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 7, 2013 at 10:27 PM · Report this
@32, Glib.

Thank you for proving my point, and I appologize if I like my pseudo anonymity, doesn't make me a troll, it makes me securiy consious, besides it's only a facade as I use the same email every time so I'm really only anonymous to the readers, not the staff.

Guess I'm falling for your trap by responding, making me guilty of my first comments to you, so you win, how's that?

however, I "fail to understand that someone can request a ride on antoher's behalf"? not so, I understand that a friend can do that for you but how often have you loaned out your fancy smart phone to a stranger to let them do that or have done it for them? you missed my point completely but then again what could I expect from someone who has commented on about 1/3~1/4 of the commentes here? Troll much? how do YOU define trolling? just because you have a registerd account doens't NOT make you a troll.

Seeing this blob's got almost nothing to do with the article, I vote that it sould be deleted. Mine and all others that have nothing or very little to bring to discussion of this article.
Posted by PBR-not a hippy I know on April 8, 2013 at 9:30 AM · Report this
platypusrex256 35
The haters out there! I didn't know it was such a crime for a journalist to appreciate innovation and technology.
Posted by platypusrex256 http://platypusrex256.blogspot.com on April 9, 2013 at 2:46 PM · Report this
GlibReaper 36
@34 one needn't loan out one's smartphone to request a ride on a friend's behalf. The pin may be dropped anywhere on the map. This does erode the claim that drivers are assured that their passengers have been screened by the identity associated with the credit card they use to sign up, though.
Posted by GlibReaper on April 17, 2013 at 8:32 AM · Report this
Unbrainwashed is silly and hostile toward anything outside his or her viewpoint - there's absolutely no compromise in the thinking. Fact is, smartphones are in the hands of most economic classes and across most ethnic groups. Not all smartphones require beefy and expensive data plans or contracts. It's possible to get working coverage for less than $50/month. I had a no-contract phone for a while and seem to remember paying $40/month.

I don't know how you imagine the world to be but it's not realistic. Your assertion that Sidecar is for white yuppies is absolutely ludicrous. I've been driving for them to help with my car payment. I've picked up blacks, whites, Asians, hispanics, etc. from all kinds of walks of life. Get over yourself, you're WAY out of touch.
Posted by Unbrainwashedisbrainwashed on July 28, 2013 at 2:18 AM · Report this
Oh, and as far as your comment in #10 regarding insurance, maybe YOUR policy doesn't allow this but that doesn't preclude coverage in ALL policies. You speak in a way that assumes you have all the answers, and that none of us have thought any of this through. Well, MY policy covers me. I checked with a CSR and had it further supported by speaking directly with a policy specialist. Seriously, you REALLY need to get over yourself, you come across like a whiny and ill-informed senile old grandma from the hinterland, for real.
Posted by Unbrainwashedisbrainwashed on July 28, 2013 at 2:31 AM · Report this
Get informed is the answer to most of the halfassed comments on here. Maybe prevent yourself from appearing so ignorant to those that actually took the time to research before responding/commenting to something strictly noted on this page.
Get some facts: http://www.side.cr/safety
All drivers are pre-vetted for safety, all rides are GPS tracked and everyone who rides is covered by our unique $1 million dollar insurance policy. We have many additional features in place to help maintain your safety and security.
Then process the information before you type...
This company has put a LOT of answers to a LOT of questions right on their site. Go figure...what a concept.
Posted by SideIsOnGroupon! on October 31, 2013 at 3:02 PM · Report this
Personally I love the idea and if it was near me I would use it. I go green by not owning a car...haven't for over 3 years now. And this concept appeals to me after taking cabs with VERY scrupulous looking drivers and well-worn vehicles that were dirty and the stench inside nauseating. And the cost was more than the Sidecar "suggested" prices that are "voluntary". I hope this grows quickly...let people that own nice vehicles and pass background checks (not sure all cab drivers do) use their vehicles to the benefit of others. Bring it on Sidecar!
Posted by SideIsOnGroupon! on October 31, 2013 at 3:12 PM · Report this

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