Photo via Facebook.
As you may have read yesterday, there are a variety of reasons why Uber is "the worst." The company's CEO, Travis Kalanick, recently had to apologize for one of his execs, Emil Michael, who threatened to hire investigators solely to dig up dirt on the personal lives of journalists who criticize Uber, the all-important, taxi-hailing app. Despite apologizing on Michael's behalf, Kalanick is the same guy who referred to his own company as "Boob-er," presumably because he was able to leverage his fancy taxi-app into sexual encounters with women who normally would not have paid attention to him.
On top of that, Uber France came under fire for luring in male customers with "hot chick" drivers who would taxi them around Lyon for up to 20 minutes at a time. A media investigation quickly triggered the removal of that particular promotion, but it speaks to the kind of corporate culture Boob-er must have for campaigns like this to be greenlit.
So, apparently the men who run Uber are frat bros at best, and journalist-threatening American Psycho-level megalomaniacs at worst. As a journalist and a human being, I'm offended. But as a frequent user of taxis, I'm torn.
Uber does make the process of hailing a taxi much easier than the regular ol' taxi cartel's infrastructure currently provides. Not having to negotiate with a taxi driver who is pretending like their debit/credit machine is broken at the end of a ride is a glorious privilege that only a taxi-hailing app like Uber can provide. Which is why the City of Toronto, who is currently picking a fight with Uber, should tread lightly.
Yesterday, Toronto's municipal government filed an injunction, which aims to have all of Uber's services outlawed from "The Six." The city's claim alleges: "The taxicab and limousine industries are regulated by the city to ensure protection of residents and visitors, and to ensure the health and safety of passengers and drivers. Uber has been operating in Toronto since 2012 without a proper licence."
But it seems as if the majority of the city's complaints pertain to Uber's ridesharing service, UberX, which allows customers to get a ride from a non-licensed taxi driver who uses their own vehicle to shuttle users around. This service obviously opens up all sorts of wormcans for regulators, and it's a big reason why Uber has had problems all around the world, not the least of which were brewing in the nation's capital recently.
As Joel Balsam pointed out for our sister-site Motherboard, however, UberX brought some much-needed competition to the overpriced Ottawa taxi market. And if you can get over the somewhat uncomfortable reality that your drivers aren't licensed taxi drivers, it makes for a pretty great deal.
Also, let's not act as if the City of Toronto is only allowing responsible individuals to drive cabs. I had a cab drag me for half a block down a street in Kensington Market after my jacket got caught in the door. I've had cab drivers who were obviously drunk behind the wheel. Not to mention all of the sketchy route-planning decisions that were obviously designed to stretch out the meter. I also once witnessed a cab driver purposely ram his taxi into another cab driver after the two had an argument in front of Union Station. He was arrested.
Then there's the 2013 investigation from the Toronto Star, which found that the city currently has drivers behind the wheel who have histories of sexual assault, drunk driving, failing to stop for school buses—so how well is the city's regulation system even working? At least with Uber, you can get a heads-up rating of how other drivers have performed with past Uber clients. If a driver's score is too low, they're booted from the system.
Our mayor-elect, John Tory, went on CBC Radio's Metro Morning today to talk about the City's crusade against convenient taxi-hailing. Tory says Uber is "here to stay," but recognized that Uber needs stop ignoring the municipal regulations they do need to abide by. He said it's "not realistic" to approach the Uber problem from the city's current standpoint of: this new-fangled technology needs to get out of town. He maintains that there is probably a more civil way to negotiate these issues.
For example, to get a taxi-brokering licence in Toronto, a company only needs to pay $300 a year. Uber has apparently neglected to pay that fee, but if they did, it would presumably render most of the city's issues (with Uber's services that hail licensed cab drivers, anyhow) moot. Tory recommended that Uber get some help with their government relations department, which is actually really good advice. Though he reminded the CBC audience that "I'm not even the mayor yet."
As for the more controversial UberX, which the city's injunction warns, provides "increased safety risk to the drivers due to lack of training and vehicle security equipment, normally governed by city bylaws," one would think that there must be some kind of middle ground between Uber not rampantly ignoring the city's bylaws, while still offering a competitive service within the taxi market.
Frankly, the idea of UberX still kind of weirds me out, as I've had enough negative experiences with "licensed" taxi drivers as it is. Plus, I suspect there are plenty of people who are willing to pay a little bit more on their fares to avoid UberX, just to have that added level of assurance about the quality of their driver. I mean, UberX allows Deadmau5 to drive people around, so clearly their quality control is questionable.
After reaching out to Uber about what they intend to do about their new legal battle in Toronto, I was told via email: "Any attempt to restrict consumer choice and limit economic opportunity does nothing but hurt the thousands of residents and visitors who already rely on Uber for safe, affordable and reliable transportation. We look forward to continuing to provide the people of Toronto with the Uber they know and love, as we continue to work with city officials to create a permanent home for Uber in Toronto."
And this brings us back to the initial issue of Uber being run by, as the Washington Post implied, jerks, who are in need of better government-relations skills. The company has brought a necessary dose of competition to the archaic taxi market, which has long-suffered from a host of problems that have been smoothed out wonderfully by apps like Uber.
But to continue down this stubborn path of ignoring regulations seems like it's more trouble than its worth, which is why I hope that Uber execs can learn to keep their mouths shut when it comes to being sexist, journalist-threatening weirdos and start developing a more reasonably strategy for partnering with governments; and likewise, it would be nice if municipal governments could learn that technology doesn't come from the bowels of satan himself.
That way, consumers could continue hailing cabs in the reasonable and efficient manner that our taxi-apps provide, without having to deal with all this high-level bickering between Silicon Valley and municipal governments about how the taxi system should work. Because if I have to deal with one more cab driver whose debit machine is "broken," I might just have to call up deadmau5 on the UberX bat phone to shuttle me around.