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Taking a back seat with Uber, Lyft or a taxi: Is it about being first class?

Minutes after you summon an Uber, Lyft or some other ride-hailing service, the car arrives and pulls to the curb.

You hop into the back seat.

Why the back seat — especially you, the member of a generation that shuns formalities, insists on using first-name salutations even when emailing or meeting strangers for the first time, and has leveled hierarchies and industries through digital technology like ride-hailing?

Could it be a class thing? Could it be that you — and maybe the driver, too — consciously or unconsciously want to make sure everybody understands his place? Graham R. Hodges, a professor of history and Africana and Latin American studies at Colgate University, thinks so.

“Riding in the back, or at least separate from the driver, has always been about class, no matter what the era, dating back to urban transport’s beginnings,” said Hodges, a former taxi driver in New York who wrote a book titled “Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver.” Hodges said that riding in the back can even promote an element of fantasy to the transaction, as the rider gets to pretend for while that he has “household servants.”

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In millions of places every day, in cities across the country and around the world, climbing into the back of the hired car is just the way things are done, whether it’s a taxi or an Uber (but maybe not in London much longer for the latter).

There are exceptions: In Australia, according to TripAdvisor and some social media forums, when a man is traveling alone, it’s considered good form to ride up front with the driver. But almost everywhere else, and certainly in the United States, the passenger gets in back. As much as Uber, Lyft and the other ride-hailing services have completely shaken up the taxi and limousine business, that custom remains in place.

Peter Norton, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering and Society, says riding in the back is probably a holdover from the days when people rode in horse-drawn carriages, along with the aristocratic baggage that comes with all that. Some buggies and carriages were built in a democratic fashion that left everyone exposed to the elements. But others came with enclosed, comfortable riding compartments that were separate from the driver, who controlled the horses from his perch up front. Yet even when the “horseless carriage” came along in models that enclosed the driver inside the vehicle, it was still customary for passengers to go in the back, Norton said. Those were the best seats, anyway. Think of the spacious yellow cabs of yesteryear.

“That’s where the legroom was,” Norton said. “Checker Marathons were favored as cabs because of the exceptional room they afforded passengers.  Same thing for London’s black cabs.”

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So the paying customer sat in the back, and the working stiff drove. From there, Norton said, it’s not much of a leap to the chauffeur’s cap, the livery and the idea that partition between front and back seats in taxis was a dividing line between the classes. The arrangement is loaded with racial tensions, too, as the movie “Driving Miss Daisy” and other portrayals explore. Norton said it’s like the flip side of those signs still found on some buildings in D.C. and elsewhere that say, “TRADESMEN USE REAR ENTRANCE.”

Of course, the front-back seating arrangement is also a security thing — for both the driver’s and passenger’s safety. Witness the bulletproof partitions that went into yellow cabs in some neighborhoods in the 1970s, at the height of a national crime wave. Even Travis Bickle, the well-armed antihero played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” had a partition, as much for his fare’s sake perhaps as for his.

There’s also, of course, the psychology of maintaining one’s personal space. Just as it would be “deeply weird” for a person to board a bus and take a seat beside the only other person on the bus, it just feels strange to crowd the driver, Norton said. Others call it the pose of “civil indifference” — the idea that people should keep a certain physical and psychological distance so as not to call attention to uncomfortable tensions between them. It’s partly what explains slug line etiquette discouraging riders from talking to the driver unless the driver initiates conversation.

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Plus, the front seat is the driver’s work area, the place where the driver may keep records, maps (if anyone still uses those) or lunch. As Hodges said, you wouldn’t go around the counter beside the barista to take your cup of coffee. And with Uber or Lyft, the privately owned vehicle is — unlike a taxi — a strange amalgam of public and private space.

But maybe it’s also possible that we now live in a fallen age, when the freewheeling joys of the automobile have been ground out of us, and the song of Jack Kerouac’s open road is more like a dirge. We’re ready for a computer to drive, and until then let some guy from Uber do it.

Cotten Seiler, a professor of American Studies at Dickinson College, says taking the back seat in the age of Uber is indicative of the larger shift that’s been underway for some time about how we view the experience of driving, mobility and the automobile. Riders opt for the back seat not only because of the legacy of carriages and class but also because driving these days sort of sucks.

“Getting your own car, and actually being in the driver’s seat of that car was absolutely essential to a vision of sort of American adulthood and American freedom,” Seiler said. “It’s just not anymore.”

The status of driving, or riding up front for that matter,  has taken a back seat, if you will, to the freedoms provided by connectivity. People just want to be left alone with their smartphones or their tablets, Seiler said, and the unwritten protocol is that once you’ve summoned a car with your electronic device, it’s okay to remain buried in your device for the duration of the trip. In fact, with ride-hailing services, you don’t even have to exchange money or swipe a credit card — it’s all part of the app.

“There was a time when the driver was seen as kind of a part-time psychotherapist, a jokester, kind of  an uncle who gets a little too rude but a lovable character — and someone you would share your fears with or your anxieties,” Hodges said.  “I don’t think that happens much anymore, unless the driver initiates it. … The fact that you’re in the back seat creates that psychic separation. People are a lot less connected with the drivers than they used to be.”

But at least everyone knows his place.

–This post has been updated to correct Dickinson College’s name.

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