Saturday, April 18, 2015

All hail Uber?

I’m about as likely to use Uber as I am to open an artisanal mayonnaise shop. Not just because I own a car, live in Nevada, don’t use my smartphone for most things, am ambivalent about the “sharing economy” in general and … well, I guess that’s it.

Uber is currently banned in Nevada because of its past disinterest in complying with regulations that govern taxis and other for-hire services. A bill proposing alternative standards for ride-hailing went down this week in the Nevada Legislature. So it’s likely that if Uber, and other companies like it, want to do business in the state, they’ll have to adapt the conventions of standard taxi companies.

But would they be recognizable afterward? Probably not. And that’s telling.

Uber users (including many friends and relatives of mine) cite the convenience, the cleanliness and the overall “ride with a friend” aesthetic that they say cab services can’t match. Critics of banning the services say that such a move is the work of entrenched cab services desperate to protect their monopoly.

Let’s take these points one by one.

The Uber app is indeed convenient, and is most likely where its future lies. Similar apps exist that will hail taxis from established companies; this allows the apps to be distinct products that separate themselves from the liability of driving people around. Though again, if Uber jettisoned its fleet and followed suit, its competitive advantage might disappear.

Convenience beyond the app: I have hailed few cabs in my life — usually while traveling in major cities — but I’ve never had a problem doing so. Indeed, the last time I did so was on my surprise flight home to Lafayette last Christmas, and it was a new company. How hard was it to hail? I walked out the airport door and there was an available cab three feet away. Boom. The driver was technologically savvy, professional and friendly, and got me home in less than 20 minutes. But even more importantly, he was a vetted employee and I knew exactly what to do if redress was necessary. And he knew it too.

Cleanliness: I enjoy a clean vehicle as much as anyone, as anyone who has ridden in my car will attest. It is spotless. It can be my version of filthy and people will still say it’s as clean as they’ve ever seen a car. (In fact, just this past weekend, a couple passed my car — which was grungy inside and out, and which I was directly headed to wash — in a parking lot and complimented it for being much nicer-looking than their identical car.) That said, however, I rarely notice the slovenliness of other cars I ride in, and as long as I’m not sitting in soup, blood or blood soup, it doesn’t bother me much. And, let’s face it, most cars are some degree of trashed. Most of the same people who love a clean Uber probably have at least one fast-food wrapper under their own seat from two logos ago. I suspect the cleanliness issue is a byproduct of middle-class people wanting to use public transportation, but not really. For whatever noble notions they have for hiring a cab, they nevertheless demand a gentrified version of it.

The “ride with a friend” aesthetic: Having to ride with friends is why I got a car in the first place.

Monopoly talk: The idea that entrenched taxi companies object to ride-hailing because they want to protect their monopoly is rooted in the classic, and true, American idea that competition is healthy. It’s also incorrect. No one seriously objects to Uber existing in the marketplace in principle. But in many places, including Nevada, it doesn’t want to abide by the same regulations by which similar businesses operate. Those regulations exist for a reason, and that reason is not to stifle innovation.

The rules exist because riding with a stranger is a dicey proposition. Passengers deserve confidence that the driver they call upon has passed rigorous background and driving checks conducted by a reliable firm, and that, as a representative of their company, the driver is working with a high degree of professional and personal accountability. Riders should be confident that the car is in working order, and that it is adequately insured in the always-possible case that accidents happen. They should also be able to rest assured that they know what they’re paying, and not be subject to the price-gouging that’s illegal everywhere else.

To put it another way: I’m free to open a hamburger stand and even charge 50 cents for a burger if I want. But if the reason they’re that cheap is because I don’t pay my workers a living wage and use horse meat, there’s a problem. If I set up my storefront in a McDonald’s parking lot, then I can’t dismiss their complaints as the babbling of a faceless megacorporation. If I hike the burgers to $4 because a parade is passing by, I shouldn’t be surprised if people balk. If my workers fondle customers, I can’t insist that they did so on their own time because they weren’t building burgers or punching register keys at that moment.

I see no problem with holding all hire-transportation companies to the same rigorous standards. If Uber chooses to comply, then it is welcome. If doing so would reduce its competitive advantages, then it can exercise its stated free-market ethos and adapt.

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