The U.S. delivers a Third World ground transportation experience?

Back in the 1980s, you knew that you were in a Third World country when

  • traffic congestion made daytime trips take 2-3 times longer than they would be on clear roads
  • your driver had only a tenuous command of local geography
  • your driver was not proficient in English

On a recent visit to Miami, my born-in-Colombia Uber driver was unable to find the Hyatt on Miami Beach, unable to follow the directions from the Uber app, and unable to speak more than a few words of English. Here’s Interstate 95 circa 6 pm on a Monday:

Upon arrival in Boston, my born-in-the-Dominican-Republic driver struggled with the English language (after six years in the U.S.; he’d been a bus driver in the DR so presumably hadn’t needed English there) and with the mid-December snow (thanks, Honda, for engineering the Accord so that I’m still alive!).

None of my previous 10 Uber drivers in Miami or Washington, D.C. had been native-born or were English-proficient.

Is it fair to say that, at least when it comes to traveling around our cities, the U.S. is delivering the Third World 1980s life experience?

[Tangentially related: We lined up for coffee and “Aussie pies” at a shop in St. Augustine, Florida a couple of days ago. The huge Christmas/New Year’s tourist crush was over, but the city was still packed with humanity (of course we need more via immigration!). It was 10:30 am and they’d mostly sold out of the pies. I noted to a former Soviet comrade: “This is just like what Westerners said life in the Soviet Union was like circa 1970. You wait in a long line and then when you get to the front find out that everything has been sold.”]

21 thoughts on “The U.S. delivers a Third World ground transportation experience?

  1. My last 2 Uber drivers in DC were off-duty firefighters. Never needed to consult the map and had great conversations re: DC government and sports. YMMV.

  2. The Uber drivers i have had in NYC tend to be upwardly mobile immigrants usually with pretty good language skills — their motivation and intelligence seems well above average compared to the native population,

  3. @Phil,

    You lack of English speaking Uber drivers isn’t just for Uber. I have run into this with other services such as food services, customer services and even professional home services (a foreman will have a none English speaker with him).

    This was far less of an issue back in 70’s or 80’s. I blame this on the bilingual support policy that was enacted over the years: government and companies are required to provide support in languages other than English.

    Think about this. How do we allow a non English speaker to take the drivers permit test in their native language and then allow a translator, for the driver, in the car during a road test? Last I checked, all the road signs (permanent or temporary) and street names are in English, no?!

  4. Please don’t insult Third World countries by comparing their infrastructure to ours. It’s natural the incredible incompetence, waste, corruption and profligacy of the US state and municipal levels, compared to other nations, means dismal roads and other infrastructure. I was recently in Israel, a country with a GDP per capita half that of the US, and, shall we say, Middle-Eastern levels of corruption. They somehow manage to have roads in perfect condition, unlike the San Francisco Bay Area.

  5. Much of this doesn’t make sense. Why would taxi drivers in the Third World countires not know their way around their hometowns? Also, English is spoken in quite a few Third World countries. If Uber drivers don’t speak English, you should blame Uber, not America. Finally, many prosperous English-speaking cities around the world have bad traffic, from Sydney to San Francisco.

    • “Why would taxi drivers in the Third World Country not know their way around their hometowns?”

      – They may themselves be immigrants to said TWC.
      – They possibly have moved from somewhere rural to the urban center where their job “skills” are saleable.
      – TWCs probably don’t have great transport / mobility so if you grew up in a slum/barrio/ghetto you wouldn’t know the geography of the entire city.

    • Why would low-income low-education people have trouble with geography? Nobody was born knowing how to read a map. Being able to read a map is a skill that nearly everyone in highly educated Japan has mastered, that a lot of people in the medium-educated U.S. have mastered, and that many folks in “developing” countries have yet to master.

  6. B: of course I don’t hate immigrants! I would be driving the welcome wagon for the next caravan that arrives in which 100% of the migrants are capable of earning above-median wages and for which their employers are willing to pay a fee to the U.S. Treasury sufficient to build additional infrastructure to accommodate the newcomers and their descendants. Immigrants that make the U.S. wealthier on a per-capita basis are awesome from my personal point of view!

  7. (Note that the above immigration sentiment is essentially the same as what pro-immigration governments such as New Zealand share. See : “Our immigration policies have been developed to support New Zealand’s economic growth. If you’re looking to make New Zealand your home and have skills, experience or capital that are in short supply locally, we’d love to hear from you.”)

  8. Several years ago, I was in San Francisco. I summoned Uber. When we got in the Uber car, I pointed to the plainly visible Coit Tower, straight up the road and about two miles away, and said, “Please take us to Coit Tower.” The driver, a lifelong American, had no idea what I was talking about. I had to spell Coit so he could type it into his gps.

    As an aside, that was the same morning I learned to try to avoid any restaurant highly-rated on Zagat, at least in tourist areas. We went to a Zagat-lauded breakfast place and there was a two-hour line at opening time. We kept walking and stopped at a place about three blocks away. No wait whatsoever and the food was great.

    • As I think back, presumably I had already provided sufficient gps info through the Uber app. I do clearly recall the Uber driver having no idea what Coit Tower was, or how to get there, though it was prominently visible and straight down the street.

    • That was probably Mama’s on Columbus Square, a tourist trap. I’m sure the food is good, but I’ve lived in SF for 19 years and I still haven’t been there.

    • People from the East Bay are completely clueless about San Francisco, like my 20-something cousin born and bred in Hayward, who had no idea what the Painted ladies in Alamo Square were (one of the standard picture postcard views of SF).

  9. Maybe self-driving cars will understand and speak English (or whatever language you want). Until then we have Uber drivers with better driving skills but less language and navigation skills.

  10. I remember one of my first impressions of the USA (2010s) was just how large and deep the potholes on the way from JFK to Manhattan were. Hadn’t seen such potholes before.

    • You have to understand the funding schedule for road improvement and remediation here. It’s a big deal. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago gets worked on all the time but it’s never going to be finished, no matter how much money is spent.

  11. We have different problems in different places and I think some are bigger than others. We have to figure out the ones that really troubling and realize that we’re just going to have others in the future.

    Sure, that sounds great. I’ve solved the problem and I’ll be down in the lounge drinking absinthe in a while now. Lol.

    But I mean it as someone who used to drive regularly across the Pulaski Skyway near Bayonne, NJ when the dumps were still burning and the stench (which was like nothing else, it was like plastic burning next to an open grave) was so pervasive it was amazing people didn’t pass out while ripping the ball joints out of their suspensions on the potholes, and that was 30 years ago or so.

    New Jersey’s infrastructure is not much better and in many ways it is worse and drastically more expensive now, immigrants or no. It’s true, we have new problems and old problems also. I think we have to start summing them up, looking at them objectively and then tackling the worst ones.

  12. But again, I think a lot of these problems could be managed much better with a little bit of intelligent technology. We don’t need to have a massive conversion to self driving cars, but what we do need is some technology to get the road crews working more efficiently. I can’t believe how bad the roads are still in some places, and the crews keep working on them for years.

    Particularly in the northeast, it’s crucial. I-84 and I-95, I-90 and the Mario Cuomo Bridge as well as the GWB are super important as are the roads leading up and away from them. They don’t need to be expanded so much as they need to be properly maintained with better and faster accident clearance. I was ASTONISHED at the cost and time it took to finish the Tappan Zee Bridge (which will always be the Tappan Zee in my mind.) It’s nice, but c’mon.

  13. Our transportation and crowding problems are by the design of our rulers. Look up “Smart Growth” and “Road Diet”. Our leaders want you to hate your car so much that you “choose” to either walk or ride around in union-staffed busses or trains while they ride around in their staff-driven town cars or helicopters. Their solution to drive you to that point: rely on a 1960 transportation grid with 4X the population. “We can’t build roads, they are too expensive to maintain” (Note that zero, or perhaps negative, effort is given to controlling infrastructure costs in the U.S.)

  14. One more, I had to come back to this one, since I didn’t really answer the question: Maybe the app. is making it too easy for people to become “transportation providers” and as a result you’re seeing a larger fraction of drivers who are just trying to make a buck with a car and a smartphone but they 1) Can’t get a job anywhere else and 2) Don’t have much motivation to really improve their knowledge of the geography because the software does too much for them?

    Although I’ve *never* used Uber (!) at one time I lived in Chicago, pre-Uber, and almost all the taxi drivers I hailed rides from over the years – immigrant or not – did at least comprehend and converse with me in English. Many of them of them knew the city like the backs of their hands. That’s with no navigational assistance other than the landmarks and the fact that if you drive east too far, you’ll need to know how to swim. Chicago is also basically laid out as a big grid with (mostly) regularly spaced coordinates, which helped when giving a destination because you could express it as a coordinate pair. Even with that navigational expedient you could still say to most drivers: “Take me to the Hard Rock Cafe” or most of the other places in the city and you would get there pretty rapidly. I had a lot of drivers who were adept at using the alleyways to bypass traffic congestion, which was amazing and harrowing sometimes. No smartphones, no GPS, no nothing.

    Here’s a question for anyone who has been there recently, since I haven’t: have Uber or any of the other services made a dent in the morning and evening parking lot phenomenon on Lake Shore Drive? That was an everyday thing when I lived there. Most cars and SUVs only had one occupant. The trip could take an hour from the north end of Lake Shore Drive to downtown, and vice versa in the evening, depending on the weather and so forth.

    I actually had an idea for an Uber-like service sitting in traffic on LSD (no hallucinations) when I bought my first data-friendly cell phone. I guesstimated that if you could cut the number of vehicles down by a third with flexible, neighborhood-based, internet-enabled ride sharing you could save a lot wasted time, gas, wear, tear and frustration. Some people could make money and others could save money. So has Uber helped?

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