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 worse) haven'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.