Rides without romance

9 February 2017

3:00 PM

9 February 2017

3:00 PM

You know the old designation NSIT — Not Safe in Taxis? Well, we need a new one: TSIU — Too Safe in Ubers. I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of Uber, whether the gig economy puts more money in the pocket of the taxi driver from Wembley or benefits only the San Francisco app-ocracy. I don’t have strong feelings about Ubers vs black cabs and whether the former are undercutting the latter, doing them out of their Knowledge and their livelihoods. My objections to Uber are not economic or ethical, they are romantic. Uber has killed off the back-of-the-taxi clinch.

It used to be that, after a date, a party, a play, a chap could prove his mettle by striding to the kerb, raising his arm and shouting ‘Taxi!’ in a firm, strong baritone. He’d give the address, open the door, usher you in, and there, in the alcoved gloaming of the back seat, he’d lunge. And so great London love affairs began.

Laura Freeman and Lara Prendergast discuss the post-dinner date ‘lunge’:

Not any more. Now there is the question ‘Shall we Uber?’, the drawing of the phone from the pocket, the tapping of the postcode, the wait, ‘Requesting…’, the approach of the little Uber car on screen, stuck in traffic, stuck at the lights, oh, he’s gone the wrong way, back round the roundabout, stuck in traffic again, nearly here, look for the number plate K5YD 1X2…. Meanwhile, two dozen black cabs with their lights on stream down Haymarket and the girl’s feet get cold.

Then, once in the Uber, the girl waits, she hopes, but there is no lunge. The chap rests no hand on her knee; it is cradling his iPhone. He gazes not into her eyes; he is following the passage of the Uber avatar through the midnight satnav streets.

The car crosses Westminster Bridge. Her heart flutters. How thrilling. The Thames. the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye lit up. ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair.’ And the chap, not looking up from his screen, says: ‘Look! We’re going over the Thames,’ and points to the moving taxi blob on the map. She wilts and thinks fondly of the old days of the back-of-the-black-cab clinch.

In these fraught times of Ched Evans, unhappy mornings after and consent lectures in the first weeks of university (in my first week we had a lecture about the Parthenon — it was great), I must make clear that I am not talking about an uninvited grapple with an NSIT boss or senior barrister or predatory nightclub lizard. I am talking about the wholly consensual, sober, rational decision to share a cab home with a man. Perhaps after the third of three successful dates, very possibly with the intention of having him drop you at your door, saying goodnight and going to bed alone, leaving him to take the taxi on and pay the fare. I am talking about the welcome first kiss that signals the beginning of a glorious relationship. Or used to.

It’s not just the irresistible pull of the Uber app that distracts a man’s attention from the expectant date beside him. In black cabs you sit some way back from the driver, and the glass partition gives an illusion of privacy, all the more so on a chilly night when the windows fog up. It is more difficult — I quite sympathise — for a man to pluck up the courage for a pounce when his knees are pressed against the back of the driver’s chair.

There was an anonymity, too, about black cabs. You’d flag them down, they’d stop, and the cabbie wouldn’t know if you were Don Juan or Alex from Mergers & Acquisitions. Now men are embarrassed at being caught in taxi flagrante when Uber has their name and the ability to rate them.

Conversations with female friends — both those who are dating and those who are long spliced — reveal dissatisfaction. They don’t want to hear about their date’s star rating, they don’t want him to complain about surge pricing when he should be in haste to take her home, and damn the cost. There was a pleasing urgency about a man hailing a black cab, there and then, because he couldn’t wait another minute to get the girl alone. ‘There are no more dismal words in the English language,’ says one female friend, single but much sought-after, ‘than “Shall we Uber Pool?” ’ Why would you share with strangers when you might spring for a kiss in private?

And they all agreed that there is nothing to make a girl feel quite so neglected, nor quite so cross, as the sense that her charms are as nothing to the lure of the tiny Uber car trundling home through smartphone streets.

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