Portland’s epic snowstorm continues. Five days after we got about 9 inches (30 cm) of snow, most streets are still coated with ice. Again, this shouldn’t be judged by the standards of snowier cities; this kind of extended storm happens less than once a decade here.
In my last post I talked about my transit experience on the first day, when snow was still coming down hard. Later that day, and twice the next day, I used Lyft– but since most Portland drivers work for both Uber and Lyft, I’m guessing an Uber experience would have been identical.
My three Lyft rides gave me five interesting data points:
- A trip to my mother’s house in Portland’s hilly west side. The driver showed up in a tiny car without snow tires or chains, and said he can’t climb hills. To prevent discrimination against customers based on their destination, the companies don’t tell drivers the destination until after they accept the ride, so this guy was unable to say no to a destination that he couldn’t physically reach. Likewise, I was unable to specify, when requesting a ride, that the driver needs chains or snow tires and probably 4-wheel-drive to get there. That’s obviously a design flaw in Lyft’s systems.
- A trip back from the same hilly area. The driver showed up in a small car with no left rear view mirror. He told me another car knocked the mirror off and drove away the previous night. He plans to get it fixed, he said, but meanwhile he has to keep driving, so he just glances over his left shoulder now and then.
- On the same ride: The driver told me he lives in Los Angeles but is in Portland for a few months for some reason. He’d never driven in snow or ice before, and clearly didn’t understand the risks. I had to explain that in these conditions, you allow even more room behind the car in front of you. “But people will cut in!” he said. “Yes,” I said, “but you won’t die.”
- … but on an earlier trip back from the airport, the driver was a very recent immigrant from Ghana who had also never driven in snow before. I was surprised to learn this, because his snow driving skills seemed perfect — which maybe just means he was quite properly terrified and being very careful.
How am I to “rate your driver” in some these cases? The Ghanaian guy gets 5 stars of course, but what of the other two?
Should I give a low grade to the a driver whose car is unsuited to these conditions, at least in the hilly part of town? Obviously this is mostly a policy failure, but should I declare, from my perch of authority, that he should have had chains?
What about the driver who didn’t have a left rear view mirror? Well, that’s plainly illegal and unsafe, but as I talked with him, I wondered if he could afford to not drive until he can get it fixed. As it was, he was also the tailgater, so it was easy to rate him low, but what if he’d been a great driver otherwise?
As I think about this, and about how the “rate your driver” scores are processed, I realize that I pretty much have to give 5 stars for anything other than obvious rudeness (unexplainable by cultural difference) or reckless driving. That’s because I can sense how much pressure these people are under, how few options they have, and how devastating even a 4-star rating can be. For all I know, someone’s kids are going to starve if I tell a guy to quit driving until his mirror is fixed. On the other hand, for all I know, he’s doing fine and is just risking his life and that of his passengers because he’s greedy.
Once you open that window into considering the real causes of problems, and the real impacts of ratings, it’s hard to close it.
This is an instance of a more general problem with all of the “how did we do?” surveys that fill my inbox every day. They really want my opinion of front-line staff, but often I can see that my negative experience was a matter of management. The obvious example is restaurant or hotel staff who are harried and unresponsive because the management has decided to have too few people on duty. I’ve learned to be careful about this. Unless I’m sure that the frontline person was entirely responsible for the outcome, the worst situations get five stars, plus maybe a little note that nobody will read.