To Uber or not to Uber? That is Your Question

November 16, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

OK, I’m probably going to regret this but… should I use Uber taxis? I got into a big argument about this in Canada last week, not that there was a uniform position – Ellie the Oxfam Canada campaigner sees Uber as the spawn of the devil, while Ifthia the fund raiser has an Uber-driver Dad. When I randomly asked a class of students, I got a 10:1 vote in favour of Uber.

So I got to reflecting on how we go about deciding whether something like Uber is good or bad, and what it says about how activists approach a new and disruptive technology.

First, let’s be clear, Uber is disruptive and causes some damage. London cabbies who have spent years doing ‘the Knowledge’ suddenly find that a combination of GPS and Uber have made all that effort redundant. Minicab firms are being undercut, potentially triggering a race to the bottom in terms of fares and working hours. Where there are unionised taxi companies (as in some Canadian cities) they risk being undermined. There is understandably a lot of bad feeling out there among drivers, leading to worldwide protests and the occasional brawl or worse.

But there’s more to it than that.

Winners or Losers? Capitalism is all about creative destruction, but activists typically want the creation without the other bit. Faced with a disruptive technology, we are always worried about the people whose livelihoods are being destroyed, reasonably enough, but what about the ones being created? Would we have campaigned for horse and cart drivers and opposed the introduction of the motor car?

What counts? I have talked to dozens of Uber drivers and other cab drivers in several countries, and am struck by the way the conversations generally focus on things other than money. Uber drivers usually praise the flexibility of choosing their hours, the security of knowing who the clients are and (in the vomit-prone UK) knowing that if some drunk throws up in your car, you will not have to frogmarch them to a cashpoint and risk a fight. Instead Uber deducts the cost of cleaning up the car from the vomiter’s credit card and sends them an email with the subject line ‘oops!’. Nice touch. Non Uber drivers tend to focus on the lack of training, alleged security risks etc, rather than the undeniable fact that Uber is undercutting their business.

Producers v Consumers: There are some curious asymmetries here. I think we often tend to focus on producer (dis)satisfaction – are drivers better/worse off. But we pay very little attention to consumers. The contrast for me of taking Ubers and traditional yellow cabs in New York was startling – friendly, interesting chats in Uber cabs v sullen, occasionally hostile Yellow Cab drivers. Plus the Uber drivers knew how to get to my destination, thanks to GPS, whereas Yellow Cab drivers seemed to think that was my responsibility. And of course, Uber is usually a lot cheaper, which brings in a whole swathe of new consumers like students or parents who use it for their kids, safe in the knowledge that they can track their movements.

What happens next? There is a backlash against Uber in many cities, including London. That is probably a good thing. I have a feeling that this will lead to a process of domestication/regulation, rather than prohibition. Already the house-training of Uber has seen the departure of its savage-capitalist founder Travis Kalanick. Competition from ‘ethical uber’ companies like Lyft has forced Uber to introduce tipping for drivers (and in the opposite direction, competition from Uber has forced cab companies to introduce many of its features, such as sending you the name and number plate of your driver in advance). We’ll see a tightening up of Uber’s security checks and other processes. A key question will be whether it is required to treat its drivers as employees – good news from the London courts last week on this.

If Uber is tamed, its fares are bound to rise, but I have no idea by how much – will it lose its competitive edge? Personally, I would probably use it even if it cost the same as other cabs, for a whole host of reasons (interesting, engaged drivers, convenience, and I like watching the swarms of little cars on my phone, driving around on the street map….), but I may be unrepresentative.

One other thing which strikes me. I’ve been surprised how few women Uber drivers I’ve had (I can only think of one, in Washington). You would think that the flexibility in hours and traceability of passengers would work for women, and maybe now Mr Macho has departed, Uber could help turn around its reputation by offering a Pink Uber with women drivers for women passengers, along the lines of the Pink Taxi movement in many cities.

Anyway, I realize that this is a massively one-sided account of the arguments for/against, so do get stuck in in the comments section, and here’s a longer, perhaps more even-handed long read from The Walrus. And now I turn it over to you to comment and vote.

[poll id=”51″]
November 16, 2017
Duncan Green