February 8, 2016

The Trouble With Uber




On paper (or, more accurately, on screen), it sounds like a great idea. There you are, needing a ride, unable to find a licensed cab, and there’s your app on your smartphone, allowing you to summon a private car that will arrive in minutes and take you where you want to go. The service (Uber is a popular one) eliminates the need for dispatchers, and cuts down on wasteful time that full-time cabbies might be spending driving around and looking for fares.

But is it really safe – or fair to the taxi drivers who must deal with the formal regulations and licensing attached to official cabbie-ing?

Safety is a serious potential issue. There’s the Daily Beast columnist who got an Uber ride in New York City, only to have the driver, at the end of the trip, present her with an iPad photo of her earlier in the day, wearing her workout clothes. It was a little creepy, she wrote – and she was right.

She gave the ride a one-star review, and was informed later than the man had been basically fired as a freelance driver. There was no attack here, but there could have been. What’s a passenger to do if someone who has not been vetted by a cab company sexually harasses or assaults a passenger? The self-policing of providing ratings and reviews is insufficient. It’s not like Ebay, where the worst that could happen is that your item doesn’t arrive or doesn’t arrive in good shape. Uber involves two strangers in a vehicle, and the potential dangers are high.

Driver safety is also an issue. A New York corporate executive told the Washington Post that he was basically kidnapped by an Uber driver who took him on a high-speed chase to get away from police. The passenger could have been seriously injured or killed.

And what of the cost? There are two possible victims here – the passengers who must pay higher “surge” fares when demand is high from bad weather, and the licensed cabbies who must pay for the privilege of making an average of 30-something thousand dollars a year to cart passengers around town. In New York City, a medallion – the license required to operate a cab – can run up to $1 million. Uber says its drivers can earn in the six figures (a fact protesting Uber drivers have challenged). That may be possible when one avoids the cost of taxi regulation, but it’s impossible when you’re driving a formal cab.

There are surely things wrong, over-regulated and just outdated in the taxi industry. Travelers to Dulles airport, for example, can take any taxi there – but the taxi, after having made a gas-guzzling and lengthy trip to the site – isn’t allowed to pick up a passenger to take back to the city, as Washington Flyer has a monopoly on that service. That makes no environmental sense, and is horribly inconvenient as well. And it would make sense for formal cab companies to use an app system as well. But it’s unfair to impose fees and regulations on trained and vetted cab drivers while others avoid playing by the rules.