We were gathered close together at the table, huddled over a laptop with a stack of empty pizza boxes shoved nearby. A friend had organized a group of her high school students to join me to talk about the ways they used various transportation options in Baltimore. Up to that point, we’d discussed things like the challenges of getting to school on time, the pros and cons of certain bus lines, and how much they wanted their parents to know about where they were. Now, they wanted to take the conversation in an entirely different direction.
When I asked whether they had ever caught a ride with a friend with a car or whether they had ever been in an Uber, the answer was lukewarm at best. Those really weren’t great options. Then came an emphatic, unanimous endorsement for another way of getting around: hacking.
Hacking is deeply rooted in Baltimore as a common mode of transportation. It’s part gypsy cab, part hailing a yellow cab in Midtown Manhattan. If you’ve never seen hacking before, it’s actually quite straightforward. Generally, someone needing a ride stands on a busy corner, casually waving downward pointed fingers at the sidewalk. A driver passing by who is interested in giving a ride sees the gesture and pulls over to pick up the passenger. “Fares,” negotiated before the ride begins, are lower than driving oneself but higher than taking transit.
What does a hack cost? A couple of years ago, a researcher at UC Berkeley documented estimated hack prices in the city. Influenced by distance and waiting times, they seem quite reasonable to me:
“Round the corner” $2.00-3.00
Up the “ave” (along the same street) $3.00-4.00
Same side of town, past the “ave” $5.00
City to county $6.00-7.00
“Over east” to “over west” $8.00
Now that our conversation was rolling, these high schoolers had all kinds of things to tell me about how to ride in a hack. “Sit behind the driver so he can’t reach around and mess with you.” “Keep your hand on the door handle so the driver can’t lock you in.” “Don’t ride with a creepy old dude.” “If you don’t have enough to pay, here’s what to do.” Moms with kids are the best.”
To the person, every student told me they had ridden in a hack — alone — without a parent or friend. Yet not a single one had ridden with an on-demand service. Instantly, I worried for all of them. How did they know a hack driver was safe? Was this really a good idea? Yes, they reassured me, these were people like themselves. From the neighborhood. With Uber & Lyft drivers… who knew?
Now, I’m not going to make excuses for the illegality of hacking. But I do think it’s worth noting the highly functional aspect of this network. It’s also important to point out the similarities between tech-enabled ride hailing and even the loose payment structure of hacking. (Remember when Lyft was donation based?)
Perception of safety is relative. No amount of validation is a guarantee. Horrible things — including rape, theft, and robbery — are attributed to hack drivers. But also to bus drivers, on-demand drivers, cab drivers, teachers, doctors, and clergy. For some, Facebook validation and third-party background checks are a gold standard. For others, it’s community. Some grocery stores in the city reportedly run background checks before letting hack drivers pick up customers in their parking lots.
As this Baltimore Sun article observes, “That puts riders at ease even as it creates a startling disconnect: Businesses are making sure people aren’t criminals before letting them break the law on their property.”
While we debate, the kids ride on.
Photo Credit: Ken Yee