Here are two completely opposite takes on Uber, the ride-sharing service that is upending the taxicab business.
Even so, as I looked down my nose at these intruders [Uber drivers], and their over-reliance on GPS to find their way through the maze of my city, I found myself feeling conflicted. While they were already doing essentially the same job as me, I knew these rideshare drivers would never have considered actually becoming taxi drivers, nor did they think of themselves in this way. Things just weren’t that simple. There was something else, something other than the money, that kept them coming back out here day after day, and night after night.
So when my fellow cab drivers complained that “Uber and Lyft are stealing my passengers!” I’d reply, “They aren’t stealing anything — we’re giving them away.”
I would argue that every time they refused to accept a credit card, and every time they refused to take passengers to their homes in the Sunset, or the Richmond Districts, they were only creating more Uber customers.
But they just looked at me like there was something growing out of my head.
The writer goes on to talk about the economics of taxicabs in San Francisco, and about the culture of taxicab driving. He paints a picture of a dysfunctional monopoly in which insiders hold more tightly to a shrinking pie, even as there is a real need for more taxis. Moreover, he hated being stuck working with the miserable misfits who drove taxis, and hated having to risk his life and his livelihood with the kind of people he had to pick up. After being stiffed for a big fare one night, the writer snapped, and went rideshare:
After my very first night, I knew I would never drive a taxi again. Something shifted in my mind. The switch flipped, and I suddenly got it. Looking through a cab driver’s eyes, I didn’t understand that it’s not about us, the taxi drivers, it’s about you. Now, when I stopped seeing the world through a cab driver’s eyes, I immediately recognized that this was a better system; not just for the passengers, but for me too.
For one, there would be no more mind-numbing waiting around to go to work. In fact, I often got my first ride as I pulled out of my driveway. No longer did I have to apologize for, or worry about, a dirty, smelly, mechanically unsound vehicle. This was my car; it was clean, everything worked as it should, and people were far more likely to treat it that way. If they didn’t, they knew they’d be charged for the cleaning, or for the repairs. There was accountability now, which kept everyone on their best behavior, even me. My passengers were inquisitive, not standoffish, nor suspicious of every turn that I made, and they usually felt more like friends than customers. Best of all, it was fun.
With the rideshare model, each night stopped being a gamble; it ended the prospect that I might actually owe money at the end of my shift. Instead, my compensation — for every fare — was now assured. There were no dispatchers, nor anyone else, to tip out at the end of the night, and the first $40 I made each shift would no longer be going to some faceless old cab driver who had been lucky enough to have had a free taxi medallion handed to him by the city years ago. The days of nervously waiting for some sketchy looking character to emerge from the shadows and climb into my backseat, of wondering if this would be the guy who finally robbed me, or who ended up murdering me, and leaving my lifeless body slumped over the wheel of a still running taxicab, were now all behind me.
Read the whole thing. It’s a compelling argument.
On the other hand, there’s this Ed West piece in which the writer expresses no sympathy for Londoners who complain about “sharia” Uber drivers. It turns out that a British actress hired an Uber driven by a Muslim, who berated her for the way she was dressed, and told her that women should not be out at night.
West says that a problem with unregulated services like Uber is that it reduces the level of trust:
As Rory Sutherland explained in this magazine a couple of years ago, trust is extremely important to capitalism and that’s why having hurdles such as the Knowledge is necessary:
‘Reciprocation, reputation and pre-commitment are the three big mechanisms which add to trust. You can use a small local firm which needs your loyalty. You can use someone larger with a brand reputation. Or you can trust someone who has made a big investment in getting a badge, and stands to lose everything if caught cheating.’
But, and I know I’m a hopeless reactionary who’s on the wrong side of history, and it’s 2015 and everything, but if people want a fully-trained driver who knows what he’s doing, has invested both his time and money in his career, and is licensed, then get a black cab. Uber is not a taxi service; it’s merely a mechanism to hire some random guy to drive you around for a pittance – don’t be surprised if he’s not quite possessed of a Morgan Freeman level of repartee and diligence.
There is also the ethical question. Janice Turner recently pointed out in the Times that her friends ‘wouldn’t grind an unfairly traded coffee beam, they champion the living wage and want to tax global evaders like Starbucks and yet Uber leaves such principles squished in the road’.
Like all Silicon Valley companies, Uber promotes fashionable social justice causes while in practice doing the most un-left-wing thing possible: doing skilled working-class people out of jobs.
I think part of this can be explained by the fact that the experience of taking a cab in London is very different from taking a cab in any US city. To be fair, I’ve never taken a taxi in San Francisco, but I have taken taxis in many American cities, and I’ve taken taxis in London. The London taxi drivers being far more consistently professional. It is possible that both writers above can be right on their own particulars, but that’s just an evasion: the moral and economic principles at issue here are the same.
Who has the better argument, would you say? Like many people, I have stood on the streetcorner in NYC in the freezing cold, desperate to get a cab, but having taxi after taxi pass me by because they were full. It is very hard to feel sorry for the taxi industry when there is such a need for services that they cannot fulfill. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to Ed West’s argument. What do you think?