Saturday, 20 June 2015

Being Taken for a Ride. An Uber Rant

I am heavily dependent on public transport because I decided not to learn to drive in my 30's (after having given it a couple of goes and hating it). This decision has had an impact on where we have lived over the years - we have always had to live near facilities such as schools, libraries and shops - but it has never felt like a negative impact. We like being able to walk to pubs, restaurants, parks and local shops and the extra exercise carrying shopping and pushing buggies (at one time a double one to nursery and back twice a day), has kept me far fitter than I would have been if I had used a car. The cost benefit of only ever being a one car family has also been significant.

For the most part I enjoy my "bus time". I like the way you can sit back and let the driver do the work, and although I often still have to sit in jams on my daily commute at least the bus can skip past some of them via a priority lane and I'm able to jump off and walk the last chock-a-block mile through the park. The problem is that bus services on the routes I use are currently being reduced. I am more and more having to consider using taxis if I want to go out in the evening, or even just stay out for a couple of drinks after work. (Btw I live, work and play in medium sized towns in the Midlands - not the back of beyond - and am finding it increasingly hard to travel between the three after 7 o'clock in the evening. What ever did happen to a Government policy for public transport?)

 My problem with using taxis isn't just the cost. At times they can be cost efficient especially if several people are travelling together. They can certainly be time efficient. However I'm of a generation that didn't "do" taxis when younger. As a student my friends and I wouldn't have considered it, even though I was at Leeds Uni when the Yorkshire Ripper was at large and a door-to-door service would have felt much saver (in fact I lived in the same block of flats as his last victim which was very unnerving). Buses were much cheaper in those days (and more plentiful). However in my case the reluctance to use taxis was heightened by an experience at 17 which was very frightening indeed. On my way home from a night club the driver took me the wrong way and wouldn't explain where he was going - just kept driving in silence despite my questions. I came to no harm except that the charges were probably double what they should have been because he took such a circuitous route - obviously his intention was just to bump the meter up and not anything more sinister. However that feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability that is inherent in being in a car with a stranger has stayed with me and I only take taxis by myself as a very last resort. Especially at night. On a typical night out I will walk a third of a mile across a park to a bus stop rather than get a taxi from the train station. However due to the reduction in buses I may soon be faced with not only the walk but also a 45 minute wait at the bus stop after 11 at night. Not something I relish.

As an attempt to bring a little rationality to my relationship with the taxi I have been looking at statistics on safety and in doing so came across the Uber story. The Uber product is essentially an app that brings together drivers and customers wanting to buy a lift and the company is undercutting more traditional registered cab services all around the world. They were funded as a start up by "super angels" in Silicon Valley and have been highly successful financially (currently valued at around $50 billion.) but have been involved in a great deal of controversy along the way.

One of the primary concerns about Uber is the extent of its responsibilities towards both customers and the drivers it "employs". Many governments and taxi companies have protested against Uber, alleging that its use of unlicensed, crowd-sourced drivers was unsafe and illegal. 

But it has also been in trouble for its allegedly blase attitude towards the safety of women customers. Sexist advertising campaigns "that offered free 20-minute rides with Avions de Chasse ("hot chick" drivers)", and executives who have repeatedly had to apologise for making inappropriate comments (and worsehaven't helped. More recently the UN has pulled out of an initiative whereby it had pledged to encourage women to sign up as drivers for Uber due to concerns that the app does not protect women

Uber has been in the news again this week due to the fact that one of its drivers lodged a case for expenses that would be due to them as an employee whereas Uber contend that their drivers are independent contractors only. The driver won the case which, although the decision is expected to be contended, has at least opened up the discussion about what responsibilities the people who are making the money out of a business have towards the people who are doing the day to day work (never mind how menial that work is).

In some ways Uber seems to be a perfect example of where the market will take us if we let it. It demonstrates how profitable a company can be when it develops technology to do a job that used to be the province of the skilled or semi-skilled human (although ask the London cabbie with his hard earned "Knowledge" and he would still tell you that no GPS system could ever replace him :-)). The profitable technology is the "property" of the few who engineered and sell it, but these profits do not get passed down to those who do the low level work in either monetary terms, or protection via conditions of employment. 

Whether we want to let the market take us there is another matter. Technology may remove the need for human skill, but is that all that a person should be paid for? What happens if we not only reduce a significant section of the workforce to drudges spending their time doing low skilled and low valued work, but also don't pay them enough for them to be able to access the same health, education and the development in technology as the "upper tier"? If a piece of software/robot can do your job then what "value" do you add by being human?1 Employment law is currently the way that we codify our acknowledgement that people matter. If we allow that to be eroded then we are effectively saying they don't.

(Also in the news this week Boris (a potential leader of the current government) told a London cabbie to "Fuck off and die" -  a very good indication of where he stands in the Uber controversy and unfortunately a strong indication of where the UK is going with all this.)

1 The "value" of being human in business terms was an idea introduced by Steve Fuller. In addition his comments in a Guardian article in 2011 are also interesting : "these developments do have the potential to create whole new deep class divisions, maybe not along the lines of the old industrial class divisions, but just as deep. Sometimes, people talk about this as the "knows" versus the "know-nots". Divisions open up along the lines of who has access to all of these potential enhancements. At the moment, the problem is that the state is dwindling away and it is becoming less of regulator of any kind of activity, so market forces are basically determining the development of all these things I'm talking about. And what that means is that the rich get access to them more quickly and the poor get left behind.


  1. Hi Cerridwen
    I have to say that I share your concern about Uber taxis. Unlicenced cabs have always been a no-no to me and that's how I view Uber, yet many people just see them as filling a gap in the market but at what cost?

    I use taxis if I'm going out and I'm going to be drinking or going to and from the airport. More often than not, I'm travelling on my own but it's not been a problem for me.

    As far as public transport goes, I only use trams and trains - I really can't remember the last time I rode on a bus in Manchester (I've been on buses in say London as a 'tourist'), although this was my mode of transport (other than my bike) when I was a student!

    Perhaps if you find that you need to use taxis more and more often, you could find out via word of mouth which company is a reliable/more reputable one that people in your area use? I use the same one all the time, so get to see the same drivers and they're less likely to take the proverbial and try to con you out of extra charges, or you could just tell them the quickest route they should take to your destination?

    1. Thanks weenie,

      Your advice to check out the local companies is sound. I'm sure once I get to know a few drivers I'll lose most of my nerves about this. :-)

  2. I have to say I think Uber is a fantastic service. For me it completely transforms my ability to get around at a reasonable price and the drivers are better utilised. I was tired of being ripped off by taxis or addison lee and delighted when the service came along.

    The cabbies are just as licensed as all licensed minicab drivers and the tracking features are considerably better than the alternatives. The Knowledge -- while a nice idea in the past and an impressive skill -- is just a gilding in a more technological age: a premium service for which I'm not prepared to pay on 99% of my journeys.

    I understand there's a general "I feel sorry for the cabbies" and fear/resistance towards change, but I'm simply open-jawed at how there's been a massive shift in this value chain -- but far from the OPs suggestion: the benefits have suddenly accrued to me -- the end user -- and a tiny bit to the owners of Uber, and a bit to the drivers. Wow. What a great world we live in.


    1. Hi Mathmo.

      I can see how Uber works for you.

      Some of us do need to have confidence in the safety of the service though and that's where Uber have come in for plenty of criticism - not just for the stringency or not of their procedures, but for misrepresenting what those procedures actually are,. I wouldn't want to put money in the pockets of any company that displays dodgy integrity to the extent that they have.

      (I know, I know, the world is rife with dodgy integrity so I'm onto a loser there. :-))

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. An interesting post, Cerridwen. I passed my test when I was in my teens but have not driven since. Walking and cycling supplemented by the public transport system--trains, buses and coaches--does me just fine. As you say, you adjust your life accordingly.

    Many of my friends say that they could not live without a car. They are right, because they design their lives with the car as part of it. The live a driving distance from their home, they factor the cost of a car into their budget for housing etc. I personally chose our house as it is near to work, public transport links, an array of shops and more.

    I am not a fan of taxis. Miss DD is more so, but she has since shifted to my more "human-focused" means of transport. However, they have an important function for many.

    I have never used Uber and--must admit--don't really think I likely will. Certainly not in its current format. That being said, as it has grown it has seen increased attention pushed to it. Over time this will no doubt see it evolve and--hopefully--improve and refine itself. This can only be good. Whether or not it makes it an actually safer or not is another matter. We will have to wait and see what happens in that regard. Such schemes will clearly not disappear but hopefully they will morph into something better for society as a whole.

    Personally, I have been looking increasingly at car share schemes. The city in which I live has a nice little one which is often quite tantalising. We live near some beautiful countryside which is quite hard to get to without a car (sadly) and this would overcome that. Though, of course, this is little use to you as a non-driver!

    1. Thanks DD, I do hope that "market forces" in this case will eventually factor in the need for safety as well as maintaining respect for the employment rights of the drivers and a fair price for the customer. :-)

      The ideal situation of course would be an adequate public transport system. When I lived in Sheffield it was no problem whatsoever to get to all corners of the Peak District via bus and back again following a day's hiking. A long time ago and a different world unfortunately.

    2. It is sad to hear it has deteriorated so rapidly in Sheffield. Down here in Southampton a similar process has happened but not as bad as in most places it seems. A lot of the bus companies around here seem to be consolidating. I don't know yet whether this is a good thing or not!

      The trains have also got progressively worse which is a shame. I used to wax lyrical about the trains to/from Southampton but now less so. They are still solid. However, they are far from as spectacular!

      Uber's is still such an immature business (and social) model it will take a while for it to mature properly. I suspect we will have to wait for some serious rivals to emerge before we see some genuinely drastic changes in how they operate. I'd be surprised if there is not several others jostling for position. They may have better ideas on how to operate the concept for the better. We will see!

      PS: Me and Miss DD were talking about the Peak District recently for a holiday. We will probably be going to the Lake District instead. Both of us have gone to the PD but not the LD yet. Looking forward to it!

    3. Hi DD. Hope you do enjoy the Lakes. I'm not too far away from there myself at the moment - staying in Cumbria on the way to the Dentdale beer and music festival :-)

    4. Sounds excellent. Enjoy it!

      I'm looking forward to it. Not had time this week to plan any further. Hopefully this weekend we can make some headway!

  4. If the government had always been in charge, we'd have no railways for heaven's sake, or railways designed principally for the convenience of the Army and Navy. And the streets would still be ankle-deep in horse poo.

    I suggest you try an electric bicycle. Wonderful things.

    1. I have no road sense dearieme and I worry far too much about what the driver in front of the driver in front of me is going to do next. It's best for everyone if I stay off the road and confine myself to the pavement :-)

    2. Alas, too many cyclists agrees with you.

  5. P.S. The only cabby who ever diddled me was a London black cab driver.

    1. Being conned out of the money was a relief believe you me. I was so thankful to get out of that car I would have paid 10 times the fare. That is not the issue here. I want to know that the man who has me in his car has gone through some kind of responsible vetting system. From what I've read I wouldn't trust Uber to do it.

  6. Interesting and thought provoking read as always, and some good links on Uber which I had not heard about either so thanks.

    I haven't used them yet, when in London I would try to avoid taxis like the plague and pretty sure there is no Uber presence around my area just outside of the big smoke.

    I can see both sides of the argument, disruption is generally a good thing but if the deal seems to be so lopsided for the tech startup kingpins then things get a bit murky for me. Having said that, in terms of the safety issues, there have clearly always been dodgy taxi companies/drivers and unlicensed cars trying to pick people up as well, especially in London after late nights out. I'd rather get an Uber than in one of them, obviously! There is something a little unnerving about getting into any car with a stranger and I can see why that could make you nervous espcially as a woman.

    1. Thanks TFS. Uber should be far more than one step up from an unlicensed cab service given the amount of money that is involved - surely some of that profit would be better being ploughed back into producing a reputable service. They're in trouble yet again.

  7. Och, never you mind. Driverless cars will solve all these probs soon enough.

  8. "What happens if we not only reduce a significant section of the workforce to drudges spending their time doing low skilled and low valued work, but also don't pay them enough for them to be able to access the same health, education and the development in technology as the "upper tier"?"

    The UK will just end up looking like Rio or Mumbai with favelas, kids picking through rubbish and beggars on the streets

    Globalisation = more middle class people outside Europe and North America = more poor people in Europe and North America

  9. To the economically naive (ie me :-)) this suggests that maybe Europe and North America should protect employment law and "encourage" a living wage rather than let the market run the show.

    What we seem to be moving towards at the moment is a richer (but not larger) elite topping a pyramid with an expanding base and steeper sides. It doesn't make any sense (even of the trigonometrical kind :-))

  10. And just think of all the times where cops have abused their power when there wasn't a camera around to catch it. Power tripping officers like this are the exact reason why there is so much distrust in law enforcement. It's like something out of a movie.