A lot has already been said on the matter of the Uber vs Taxi debacle so I won’t rehash it all here. I will, however, tell you a story. This is the story of my first encounter with an Uber driver. In total I have taken three Ubers simply due to convenience and pricing and each time I have reached what was roughly my destination, I felt a little sadder than before.
I first heard about the service Uber provided from Dan Harmon’s podcast Harmontown. On the podcast, he recounted an ordeal with a driver who had such a horrifyingly weak grasp of the concepts of road safety that he stopped in the middle of a freeway to ask Harmon if he wanted to leave via the current exit or continue on. Dan Harmon, creator and head writer of sitcom Community among other things, responded to this the way you would expect. Despite this, when prompted by the app to rate his driver, Harmon couldn’t bring himself to give the driver three stars, as he had intended to, or even four. In spite of basic misapprehensions of safety Harmon gave the driver five stars. Not because he felt sorry for him, and certainly not because the drive had been pleasant, but because his overactive imagination pictured the plight of an immigrant making his way to the US and all that this entails and Harmon couldn’t help but give him another chance.
So naturally when I realized that Uber was also available in the UK I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I wanted to identify with the story told by Harmon, one of my personal idols, but the negativity of the story was difficult to shake. But surely they can’t all be as bad as Harmon’s driver?
My first experience took place one night on Oxford Street. My girlfriend and I had just eaten and we wandered a little way down the street. We were only a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road station when we fired up the app. The driver was only two minutes away. We watched with cautious optimism as he came into view. Then, almost as if he had heard the blunder made in Harmon’s story and sought to imitate it, the man stopped dead in the middle of a four-way intersection, expertly blocking three streams of traffic simultaneously for what felt like an eternity. He would stick his head out of the window trying to decide whether to go left or right as people honked and shouted. He then went on to drive straight past us (and past the address we had given) despite our waving, and sodded off down the road. We chased the clueless driver for a while until he stopped at a traffic light and we waded out onto the road and had to knock on the window to get him to let us in.
Even then we were faced with an inexplicable situation having to explain that the chubby white man and short Thai girl were the people he was looking for and not some odd criminal pairing. He almost seemed surprised that part of the process was actually getting the people into your car. The drive itself was uncomfortably quiet so I piped up and asked him how his day had been; he grunted at this and put his earphones in so he wouldn’t have to talk to us. Eventually we reached our destination, signified with another grunt, and got out.
The real problem lies with Uber itself. Anyone with a Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) can sign up and work for them. This is not unlike a traditional minicab firm but the simplicity of the app has caused damage to the livelihoods of others. Criticism has come from traditional taxi drivers who are vetted and bogged down in bureaucracy so they meet very exacting standards. As such there is a minimum standard of safety and, if stereotypes are to be believed, a decent conversation to be had. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been screwed by taxi drivers before. ‘Fixed’ fares have been changed when the driver learned I was rushing for a train. By no means are they perfect, but at least they haven’t been so openly suicidal.
That being said the fact that Uber is taking over is not the fault of Uber. Those crying over the loss of the ‘traditional’ black cab, the Hackney Carriage are missing the point. People take precedent over tradition and the people are voting with their wallets. I love the iconic beauty of traditional London, with its red telephone boxes (which are already defunct) and its black cabs (which are defaced with advertisements for the most inane tat and may soon be defunct) and its big red double-deckers. It wouldn’t take much for taxi drivers to use a similar system to Uber; Hailo isn’t a million miles away (even if it is going the way of Flappy Birds).
Lifts were effectively a monopolized industry in central London until the advent of these kinds of services. It’s not a surprise then that traditional taxi drivers are struggling to keep up. Personally I have no preference one way or the other. Holding on to tradition is the very thing that is holding our society back. So what if we’re not a caricature of ourselves? I’d love traditional taxis to come out on top but the lack of overhead means drivers get 80 per cent of the customers’ fare; and that fare is already down on anything a taxi driver could charge.
If the incompetence of the drivers could be weeded out then it would be a win-win situation. If traditional taxis are going to continue to exist then they’ll need to figure something out to help them compete. No amount of complaining is going to save them, even if most of those complaints are entirely legitimate … then of course there are those telling us that if we really love London we won’t use Uber. More than a little reductionist and frankly embarrassing to hear. Regardless, in the end the people will decide, even if that decision gets them killed.