How Uber Is Changing Night Life in Los Angeles
November 10, 2014
When Ryan O'Connell, 28, moved here from New York last year, he didn't want a car. "I've always been so scared of driving," he said. "I feel like I would be a bad driver."
Normally, that would be a problem in one of America's most auto-centric places, where cruising along the Sunset Strip is a lifestyle and cars are not only a means of transportation but a status symbol. But Mr. O'Connell was only briefly perplexed.
"I didn't know what I was going to do," he said, "and then Uber descended from the gods."
These days, he uses Uber, the smartphone-enabled car service app, as much as three times a day, Mr. O'Connell said the other day, sitting with friends by the rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles, a popular Uber destination. He takes it from his home in West Hollywood, Calif., to his job, as a writer for the MTV series "Awkward" in Hollywood, and out for drinks after work. His roommate and best friend has a car, and yet they rely on Uber to get around on weekends.
An Uber customer checks on the arrival time for her ride. Credit Emily Berl for The New York Times
"It became very clear to me that I could use Uber and have the kind of life I wanted," he said. "I feel like I found a way to take the best parts of my New York lifestyle, and incorporate them in L.A."
Mr. O'Connell is part of a growing contingent of urbanites who have made Ubering (it's as much a verb as "Googling") an indispensable part of their day and especially their night life. Untethered from their vehicles, Angelenos are suddenly free to drink, party and walk places. Even as their business models are evolving, these ride-sharing services, which include Lyft, Sidecar and others, have upended the social habits of the area, and rallied its residents to be more peripatetic.
A night out in Los Angeles used to involve negotiating parking, beating traffic and picking a designated driver. Excursions from one end to the other - say, from the oceanfront city of Santa Monica to the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood on the eastern side - had to be planned and timed with military precision, lest they spiral into a three-hour commute. More often than not, they were simply avoided.
"Before Uber was a thing, I would rarely go to Hollywood," said Drew Heitzler, an artist who lives in Venice, a potentially treacherous drive away. "The prospect of going to Hollywood on a weekend night, if I was invited to a party or an art event, it just wouldn't happen. I would just stay home."
Now Mr. Heitzler, 42, uses the ride-sharing app at least weekly, gladly leaving his car behind when he socializes. "In Los Angeles, you have the ubiquitous D.U.I. checkpoints everywhere," he said. "If you're going to go to a party, you either don't drink or you Uber there and Uber back, and problem solved."
At the Mandrake, a bar he co-owns near Culver City, customers may be more likely to order a third cocktail when they know they can be whisked home safely; he certainly is. At the end of the night, "I see people reach for the phone and call the Uber," Mr. Heitzler said. Taxis here were often unreliable, he added, but ride shares are always just a swipe away.
Once, only the privileged few, the studio bosses and pampered starlets, could afford to have a chauffeur and a waiting car to transport them around sprawling Los Angeles. Now anyone with a credit card can enjoy that freedom.
"This has allowed people to be more spontaneous, and not think about who's driving, are you car-pooling, parking," said Kelly Sawdon, partner and chief brand officer for the Ace, who uses the ride-sharing apps herself from her home in Los Feliz. "Uber and Lyft have made it much more affordable, and encouraged people to venture out of their neighborhoods, and to explore."
That is especially true of downtown Los Angeles, which is enjoying the double whammy of a recent cultural resurgence - partly bolstered by the Ace, which opened its hotel and performance space in a historic 1920s movie palace in January - and the car services that deliver once-reluctant visitors. Along with Santa Monica and West Hollywood, it is the area with the highest ridership, according to an Uber representative, though the company refused to release specific figures.
Rick Garcia, 59, a retired Army major who said he became an Uber driver to fund a vacation, starts and often ends his shifts downtown. "It's changing in the blink of an eye," said Mr. Garcia, a Los Angeles native raised in Echo Park, as he wound his way along one-way streets lined with Art Deco buildings, some empty, others now home to yoga studios and juice bars. "There's a lot of New Yorkers here, and they're saying it's almost like New York."
True enough: The district is drawing comparisons to SoHo in the early 1980s, when former warehouses morphed into galleries and artist lofts. In downtown Los Angeles, a visible homeless population (thousands bed down nightly in nearby Skid Row, according to city estimates) crosses paths with European tourists and designers in drop-crotch trousers (the area is also home to the fashion district). In September, a branding agency started a monthly publication, LA Downtowner, to highlight local businesses and street style.
Grand Central Market, a food hall from 1917, has lately turned Smorgasburg-y; on weekends, preppily dressed crowds wait patiently for sandwiches from Eggslut. Outside, the street is blocked off for pedestrians, with cafe tables and umbrellas, and nearby is a linger-worthy bookstore and a retro barbershop with shuffleboard. Along Broadway, between discount stores and pupusa stands, are boutiques like OAK NYC and Acne Studios, the Swedish fashion label that opened a giant store there this fall.
At Ace, a steady stream of Ubers, with their glowing "U" in the windshield, or Lyfts, with their goofy pink mustaches on the hood, disgorge passengers on weekend nights, where they line up for the rooftop bar, hot tub and rock shows. At Bestia, the buzzy Italian restaurant tucked into an industrial alley, many diners still valet park, but ride shares outnumber taxis five to one, said Kenny Arbuckle, a bartender. New bars and lounges emerge seemingly weekly, adding to the ride-share demand.
"I find myself going down there a lot and taking friends that are coming to visit, because there's so much cool stuff to do," said Lara Marie Schoenhals, 30, a writer and Mr. O'Connell's roommate. On a recent night, she bounced from drinks at the Ace to dinner at a Roy Choi hot spot in nearby Koreatown then more drinks at a new bar in West Hollywood. "I can just, like, YOLO with Uber," she said.
Ride sharing, some analysts say, has become a viable alternative to owning a car: between the cost of gas, insurance, garages and valet tips, it's often more economical to get a lift in a professional's Toyota than to drive solo in your own, and that's without factoring in the mental cost of sitting in gridlock on Interstate 405.
A short ride through downtown in UberX, the company's lower-priced service, introduced here last spring, can cost as little as $4, while parking lots charge $5 for 15 minutes. Mr. O'Connell spends about $16, round trip, to get to work, he said.
Still, the fares can add up. Ms. Schoenhals, co-author of the satirical novel "White Girl Problems," based on the popular Twitter account, subsidizes her Uber habit in digital-age fashion. The company offers credit to people who sign up new riders, so she gives out promotional codes to her 812,000 Twitter followers. "I just keep riding Uber for free," she said gleefully.
But some of those perks may be changing as the companies face growing pains and competition. In recent months, the rivalry between Uber and Lyft has led to a price-slashing war that left some UberX drivers fuming and protesting cut wages. Federal and local officials are also considering new regulations. (In New York, after much debate, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission extended a pilot program allowing the apps to continue.) In the meantime, Uber has angered passengers for implementing exorbitant surge pricing in high demand moments.
Even Mr. O'Connell, the über-Uber devotee, is peeved. "The company is turning into a soulless psycho monster," he said. He sides with the drivers. "I would much rather they pay them fairly than have to deal with surge pricing at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday," he said.
And Uber can only change Los Angeles's car culture so much. In a nod to the city's continued obsession with the status ride, the company recently implemented, in Los Angeles and Orange County only, UberPlus, with a fleet of BMWs and other luxury vehicles. Even with ride shares, what you pull up in matters.
"If you're going to the airport, you use UberX, who cares," said Mr. Heitzler, the Venice artist. "But if you have to go to a party at the Chateau" - the see-and-be-seen celebrity-magnet Chateau Marmont - "you at least go black car. Or even a giant S.U.V. There's nothing better than getting out of a giant S.U.V. at the Chateau by yourself." - NY Times