Fear, Waiting and LaGuardia

If there was ever a situation in which ride sharing apps would be used, it was at LaGuardia Airport, 12:30am after the airport had been closed for a storm. When I arrived, delayed for several hours with many other flights, I found a taxi line that was like nothing I had ever seen. In fact, the line I first saw — already the longest line I’d ever seen — turned out to be only the first quarter of its entire length, the remainder hidden in a slow snake behind a large pillar.

I was tired after the long delayed flight but initially thought that the line was moving along nicely and I’d be home soon enough. On my walk out I’d already noted that there were none of the usual gypsy cab drivers running around offering their services — they had already all been snapped up. I was actually not alert enough at that hour to think of calling a private car myself, though I’m sure the wait would have been hours long if I had. Instead, I started to think about how I could get home faster than waiting out the entire line.

Fortunately for me, a guy two spots ahead started to wonder the same thing aloud. He was clearly not from New York and wondered why no groups were forming to speed the line up. His destination was nowhere near mine and on a normal day I wouldn’t have considered sharing a taxi, but I talked to him anyway and started to teach him about how to refer to NYC neighborhoods, a crucial skill at this time. We decided to help each other out.

This was when I realized that ride sharing services really have a tough slog. If no one was trying to use them on a night like this, or if the line was this long in spite of them, or if there was no one walking around promoting one of them and signing new customers up, there was clearly something wrong with the way they’re run. Or waiting behavior was so ingrained that they had to make a serious push to change it.

While a few people in line vocally complained, the vast majority accepted their fate with complacency, steadily plodding forward a few steps a minute, not even responding to my new, non-New Yorker friend’s inquires as he started to work the line about sharing a ride. Many people were traveling solo, back from business trips, coming home tired and after their delayed flights, unable to think about creatively fixing their wait time problem. Contrast that attitude with the planning for the MTA strike of 2005 where people shared rides in their own cars. They had time to plan. They were wide awake. And no one had iPhone apps back then.

What LaGuadia needed that night was a syndicator — someone to walk up and down the line, find out where peole were going and pair them up. Such roles don’t exist at LaGuardia. And it’s hard for individuals in the lines to do that themselves, especially when travleing solo. Will the guy behind you watch your bags and hold your spot? And anyway, after getting blank stares after asking 10 people (as my new friend did), who will continue to ask more? What drives that behavior? I don’t know if fear is the right word, but there’s a certain lack of willingness to break the unspoken rules about strangers forming groups to travel together.

To initiate the process you someone who doesn’t know any better, my new friend from Denver. To close the process, you also need someone on the receiving end who doesn’t know any better. After 10 minutes he found a woman hours ahead of us in line. And no surprise, she wasn’t from New York either. And you need the guy who enables them to communicate, which happened to be me (instructing my new Denver friend about how to refer to neighborhoods). She agreed to let us share her taxi. How many people followed our lead? Zero.

So an hour after getting in line I was on my way. Here’s how the economics of the trip broke down:
We paid for the woman’s taxi ride (which she hadn’t asked for, but I had no problem doing so). We dropped her off first, even though her stop was farther than either of ours. Next came the guy who was willing to work the line, a well-deserved break for him. He paid $30 at that point, probably about what he would have paid if he had gone solo, but still he saved hours of wait time. When I was dropped off last, even though my stop was closest I was happy. I had saved hours of waiting and paid $20, about what I would’ve paid had I waited and gone myself, but again saving hours in the process.

Everyone won, but unevenly. The process was messy, random, and required someone to break the rules. Thank God for that. What could the ride share services do to make sure no one ever has to go through that kind of wait again?

Filed in: lean startup