Booking Trips for Parents?

Breaking news! Aug. 20: An appeals court has allowed ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft to continue treating their drivers in CA as independent contractors while an appeal works its way through the court.

This is a California registered Prius sporting a lot of stickers supporting AB5 for Uber and Lyft drivers.
Fewer ridesource cars… more stickers!
photo credit: Pymnts.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone:   A few months ago, your column mentioned booking trips for parents with the smartphone app and that has been a lifesaver. My Dad lives out-of-town and needs to get to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment. He likes the independence this gives him even though he has a flip-phone. But, I notice that there are fewer Uber and Lyft vehicles on the road now because of the pandemic. Do you think I should hire a personal driver? Honestly, this could not come at a worse time for us. J.S., San Francisco

Dear J.S.: So true-  you can book a ride for your Dad, and give him wheels when he doesn’t have keys. But, as you note, because of the pandemic there are fewer drivers on the road and economic activity has dialed down. Surely Dad will wait longer to get a ride. But, before you wait your turn on Uber or Lyft, perhaps there is a non-profit that will help? A friend of mine runs a charity that provides free medical transportation for cancer patients in Massachusetts.

If this charity was here in California, there could be problems beyond the economic slowdown and fewer ridesource drivers.  Beginning August 20, the ridesource (aka, ridehail) services might shut down because of the state’s AB5 law.  The law specifies that Uber and Lyft must classify their drivers as employees, and provide benefits like a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and more.  Uber and Lyft have fought the ruling and say that more than 80 percent of their drivers are part-time and work less than less than 40 hours a week.

Finding Alternatives:

But, back to Dad. You should prepare well in advance of his appointment and contact the medical office. They often work with transport providers and Medicaid. Ironically, those contracts may be with UberHealth and Lyft, like the charity I mentioned.  Medical facilities should be able to offer links to community resources, to social workers, and local councils on aging. Just be persistent!

But, if it’s affordable, maybe you should indeed contract with a  driver looking for outside gigs. Medical vans do not tend to be as convenient as Uber or Lyft, and the scheduling needs to be done hours, if not days in advance. Riders say they feel a loss of control and freedom.

Voting Your CHoice:

But, you and your Dad get a chance to weigh in, assuming you are registered to vote in California. On the November ballot Proposition 22 creates a hybrid category for rideshare drivers that will keep employee benefits lower. Meanwhile, Harry Campbell, a ridesource industry insider, has given a nod to an insurance company called ‘Kover’ which already provides health insurance and layoff insurance for drivers. Campbell’s own quote, based on his revenue, was $61.00 a month.

The “time-out” for Uber or Lyft, if it occurs, will not last forever. Campbell reports that their business quickly restores once they come back into the market. What I worry is that people like your Dad who depend on ridesource will be the most impacted. Not only do they need a trip to the doctor, but well-being also depends on having local, connected travel. Sometimes the trip to the doctor is essential, but so is the visit to get an ice-cream cone. 

How to Find A Local Business

“Looking for out-of-town information….coming up short”

two logos on a page: the yellow pages 'let your fingers do the walking' and now siri, 'let siri do the talking'.
How we search for a business has changed

Dear Ms Smartphone: How should I find a local business?  My family wanted to take a rafting trip together so I went online. Most of the places are about 60 miles from my home.  I searched on Google and picked the one with a good web site and nice pictures of the river. When we got there, I discovered there were other rafting places nearby that were open and had better boats. Unfortunately, they did not come up in my search or at least I don’t remember that they did. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I preferred it when we searched the Yellow Pages. Bernice, S. San Francisco

Dear Bernice:

Do you remember the slogan, “Let your fingers do the walking (through the yellow pages?” Well, today it’s “Let Siri do the talking”! 

Your question is interesting, because indeed, how we search for information and how we discover things in the community have changed so much. As of 2011, nearly 70 % of Americans rarely or never used printed phone directories (the yellow pages), and since then most have gone digital. Even if you liked to use the yellow pages keep in mind that you needed a local directory to search a business even 60 miles away.

Not So Local!

Several years ago there was a scam in digital searches. Say you were looking online for a towing service or locksmith. The address would not pop up and people naively thought they were reaching a local business. Instead, the online connection was to shills far away. Sometimes these nefarious characters took credit card information online and never showed up, or, subbed out the work. 

Since then, search engines like Google, Bing and others have cleaned up their protocols and make it more evident when you do a local search that you are reaching a local business. In terms of your specific search for rafting trips, a couple of things might have gone missing. 

Keywords (and Key Phrases)

First, the businesses that display top-most in the search, like the one you selected, could have bought an ad placement. Here’s how it works:  The business owner bids on keywords and pays a fee to display their name at the top of the list if someone searches choice terms like ‘raft’ or ‘water adventure’ or ‘canoe.’ There’s a tiny icon that says ‘ad’ when the listing displays on your screen, but it certainly easy to overlook it if you are in a hurry.

That said, local businesses do not have to pay to have their listing posted on Google. The listing is free and Google gives them a free web page and map links.  But, without the keywords, the listing may display further down the search page. 

It takes a little bit of digital savvy for a business owner to understand how to get listed and show up on the map. In your case, the other rafting companies may have ignored this, or simply didn’t care. In this link you will find a funny, perhaps sad, discussion between Google business and a locksmith– the locksmith said he just wanted to fix things, he did not know, or care to learn, about posting things on a computer. 

Searching is a 2-way street

The onus to search is a two-way street. To get the full listings you want for a far-away community, the geographic location needed to be specified. Sometimes we turn off the GPS on our devices,  and forget to include the place-name in our searches. We all tend to stop searching after the first few listings display, but the first ones-up are the paid-for-ads.  Other local businesses (e.g. the other rafting businesses) may be several pages deep and require more effort to find.


I would like to think that younger people (the Digital Natives) dig deeper in their search requests and do not stop at the first results. But, maybe not. Do you recall how many businesses in the days of  Yellow Pages called themselves “AAAAAlocksmith, AAAAplumber and AAAArafting? When it comes to finding things, both then and now, a little knowledge helps float the boat.

Are Drivers Less Distracted?

Photo of a car dashboard showing the steering wheel and a face mask dangling from the rear view mirror
Distraction in cars still happens…

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Just curious. Traffic seems better because there are  fewer cars on the road. But, now that we are all staying at home more, are we  less distracted when we get in our cars too?  Tommy, San Francisco

I get your point that people are spending so much time at home during the quarantine so perhaps they are safer when they go out.  Maybe they have done social media catch-up before they left the house so less need for distracted driving and phone conversations in the car? Or, maybe they just want to experience getting out, without a tether to tech. Some people may want to leave their phones at home because of the embedded tracking issues. Not really sure, however…

If they do place or answer calls from their car with Bluetooth enabled speakers hopefully these will be short, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ dialogues. They will leave the cognitively challenging talks for back home- the discussions about marriage and divorce, bankruptcy or medical reports.

How did I get here?!

We all have had times when we traveled from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ in a semi-autonomous haze. We are so wrapped up in what we are saying that we travel without actively noticing our surroundings. The public has the hardest time comprehending that cognitive distraction can occur when using hands-free, bluetooth car tech. Often, we equip our cars with state-of-the-art communications, but we travel even less safely.

Perhaps Covid will bring us greater self-awareness, from the task of wearing a face-mask when we are around others, to having greater respect for other drivers on the road, assuming we enforce both rules. Traffic accidents and crash-related deaths were halved in California when the shelter-in-place began. Tragically, traffic fatalities have returned to last year’s levels, because of excessive speed on open roads. 

If we are out and about these days, we all need to slow down, remember to wear masks, and be aware of others well being, as well as our own.  Distraction comes in many forms.