Us millennials – we love to share, don't we? "Hey Tom, give us a chip." Sure, mate. "Tom, can I borrow a fiver?" Yeah, go on then. "Hey Tom, because of spiralling inflation and stagnant wages is it OK if I forego ever owning a car and/or house and instead just rent forever and use app-based services like Uber and Airbnb?" Erm, I guess so. Seems like an odd question to ask, but yeah, whatever.
This reliance on the sharing economy is one thing. But with the introduction of Uber Pool in December of 2015, we've now taken to sharing within the sharing economy, hopping into taxis with complete strangers who are heading in vaguely the same direction as us. This is great for our wallets and the environment and the general wellbeing of Earth, but also capable of inducing sheer panic in those who don't like interacting with people they've never met before.
Because "sheer panic" is my middle fucking name, I decided to ride shotgun in an Uber Pool around London for an entire Friday night. It used to be that we were warned against meeting people online, or getting in strangers' cars, but we now actively and regularly get into the cars of strangers we've met online, with other strangers, without giving it a second thought. I wanted to see how we got to that point, and how – if at all – it's changed how we interact with each other.
I was welcomed into the cab by a very friendly guy called Jonathan. He told me that, like most Uber drivers, he used the company as a source of extra income to top up his main job as an actor/DJ. He had a set the following night in Streatham, which sounded like it would have been a vibe.
Our first customers were two brothers from Sheffield, Hamza and Waqas. They said they'd just come down to London for a couple of days to check it out and were now on their way back home after having a couple of drinks, as is standard for a couple of lads on a Friday night. They seemed very happy to talk to what was essentially a weird bearded man breathing heavily and holding a long lens camera, but then they were northern, so maybe weren't as awkward as Londoners are.
An interesting fact I learnt from Hamza, who was studying medicine: apparently doctors play table tennis a lot to help with hand-eye co-ordination. Hamza reckoned he could kick my arse at table tennis, but I seriously doubt that because I'm sick at it and would have definitely battered him.
Next up were the happily merry James, Yvonne and Jin, who were all artists of some kind and had again been sinking a few drinks at some swanky-looking bar. James was quite reluctant to talk to the weird guy pointing a camera in his face, but Jin told me a delightful tale of a former Uber Pool ride she'd shared with a woman who was talking very loudly about politics and toilet sex. At the end of the ride she invited her back to a party, but Jin politely declined, which, to be honest, was probably for the best.
We then deposited James and picked up Mei, who was in London from Sydney for a few months for business. Despite being the most talkative of all the people we picked up, she refused to have her picture taken – but was more than happy to explain how the English are incredibly hard people to talk to and how London is nice, but that Australia is so much better in pretty much every way.
So far, the majority of people had been very up for a chat – more so, I thought, than they might have been had we just met on the street or in a smoking area. They divulged personal details more readily than any strangers I'd met before, and were a lot more forthcoming than anyone I've ever tried to chat with on public transport. I wondered if there was any psychological reason for this – if sharing a space as enclosed as this might encourage people to open up quicker. That, or everyone was just a bit pissed.
Next, apropos of nothing, it was time for some public nudity on the streets of London. I had no idea what was going on here, but some people on one side of the road were shouting at these three semi-naked people.
I don't know why they had so little clothing on, or why the other guys were so angry about it, or how the man in the foreground of this picture knew I was about to take a photo and managed to bust a pose so quickly, but it did remind me that London is simultaneously one of the best and most terrifying places to wander around in on a Friday night. You never know what's around the corner.
After getting stuck in some traffic for a bit, our next customers were the lovely Irene and Daniela, two Italian girls who both worked at a restaurant. It was getting past midnight and they'd both been through what sounded like a busy shift, and wanted a quick, easy and safe way to get home, adding that they usually take Ubers after late shifts as they worry about their safety on public transport – a depressingly common complaint from the women I shared the Pool with.
Sitting in the front seat of a cab for an entire night is a very effective way to see how a city's nightlife morphs from borough to borough. Clapham's Pull & Bear brigade gave way to the suited company men in Bank and Monument; Shoreditch played host to Hertfordshire girls on hen-dos and indie guys in Johnny Borrell hats, desperately trying to find their place in a city that gave up on guitars half a decade ago.
Our last customers of the night were three Brazilian women who we picked up outside Vodka Revolutions, two of whom, Laskara and Olivia, were celebrating their birthdays. And boy howdy, they seemed like they had really celebrated a treat. I got along so well with the lady on the right that she handed me a card with her number on it as she got out, which – for the purpose of this story – was great. I'd read in various places that Uber Pool could be "the new Tinder" and that it has "become a hook-up service", which seemed a lot like piping hot bullshit, but it turns out there might be some truth in it.
By the time we'd dropped off my three new friends it was getting pretty late and I had my own party to attend, so I had to part ways with Jonathan, who I'd now grown extremely fond of. We even had a little hug and everything at the end.
If I took anything away from my night in the Uber Pool, it's that London isn't the chilly, antisocial place so many people make it out to be. Ignore listicles that tell you the 17 Things You Need to Know about London, which all turn out to be "Londoners are rude dickheads". They're not; they are absolutely normal human beings who are just as capable of talking to strangers as people from, say, Lincoln, or anywhere north of Wakefield.
What part the sharing economy plays in all this isn't immediately clear – I suppose sometimes you might share a cab with a talkative person, sometimes you'll share a cab with an introvert who won't once look you in the eye for an entire 40-minute journey. But if my admittedly brief experience is anything to go by, know that sharing a confined space with a bunch of strangers isn't nearly as terrifying a prospect as it might seem.
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