Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A new project hopes to increase tolerance by having passengers strike up conversations with their taxi and ride-hailing drivers.
Maybe you remember what you ate the night you took a taxi to dinner, or the joke you told a friend as you shared an Uber; maybe the driver’s face is more of a blip in your memory. But Wei-En Tan knows that once you talk to them, their stories—in many cases, centered around struggles and aspirations as immigrants—tend to stay with you because of how relatable they are.
So Tan, a market strategist on clean energy, is getting passengers from across the globe to share their drivers’ stories through a new project called Riding Up Front. Launched just two weeks ago, the blog features posts written from the passengers’ memory, each illustrated by volunteer artists. There’s also an art gallery filled with artist submissions.
Tan remembers an Uber driver named Muhammad, a man with a “dour” face. When he picked her up during a trip to New York, “he looked like he was in a terrible mood,” she recalls. She sat in the front and asked him about his life. Muhammad is an engineer—Tan thinks he’s from Pakistan—but wasn’t able to find a job when he moved to the U.S. He sounded bitter, she adds, until they started talking about his seven-year-old daughter.
He beamed when he talked about her becoming a doctor, and said she was going to have a better life than he had. This struck Tan, an immigrant herself, who later wrote about her encounter in the blog:
“Interesting that the recurring theme I’ve seen in many of my rides with immigrant drivers was the affirmation that their children would do better than them, and the faith they have in their belief. It is a powerful belief, gives rise to formidable work ethics, and it is admirable.”
Riding Up Front started as a personal project for Tan, a place for her to write about the people she met on her business trips. But then the election happened. Tan was in Paris at the time, but she could feel the animosity toward immigrants growing at home, fueled largely, she thought, by a lack of understanding. “Many people don’t realize we immigrants share the same values,” she tells CityLab. “We care about our families, we work hard, and pay our taxes.”
She started asking her friends to contribute stories about their own trips. Eventually she launched Riding Up Front as a nonprofit project, with writers and artists from around the world sending in work, and a team of six volunteers (including Tan) lending their time curating the blog. They ask contributors for a trip receipt to verify the encounter, but there’s no way to fact-check what the drivers said. Instead, they rely on the writer’s honesty and memory.
Currently there are 15 posts on the website, some of which are by Tan herself, but she says more than 30 people have submitted their work. The stories are short, and serve mostly as a glimpse into complex lives.
One passenger wrote of a young Hispanic Uber driver and his trouble with trusting people. Another piece featured a Cuban driver who was a pastry chef-turned-food-artist. An artist visiting her hometown in the once war-torn Bosnia recounted her adventure through the mountains with a cab driver in his fifties.
The team’s goal is to create a network of writers and artists—and people who simply enjoy creativity—to raise awareness about immigrant communities. And though there is no formal partnership with other nonprofits, Tan hopes the project will soon be able to raise money not only to commission work, but also to support the work of groups like ACLU and the International Rescue Committee.
For now, though, Tan says she’s happy if even one story changes how someone feels toward immigrants for the better.