“We Need Uber.” So declares a recently installed lawn sign as one enters Troy. A recent survey conducted by Uber itself revealed that 80 percent of those polled support allowing “ridesharing” companies like Uber—also known as transportation network companies—to operate in upstate New York (currently they operate in New York City under the regulatory oversight of the Taxi and Limousine Commission). Consider me a part of the 20 percent—but don’t hastily dismiss my opposition as the recalcitrance of a contrarian. Like proponents of “ridesharing,” I agree that our region’s taxi service leaves much to be desired. I too have scheduled cabs to the airport well in advance only to have them arrive late and bit back complaints at the inconsistent fares demanded from one cabbie or one company to the next.
But do “We Need Uber?” Is Uber the solution to these problems? We need to sift through the disingenuous language and cut through the euphemisms proffered by Uber, the “ridesharing” industry, and proponents in Upstate New York who want to clear restrictions that bar its operations.
Uber is one of many recent tech start-ups that comprise the “sharing” economy. Though there are smaller competitors in the ridesharing industry, such as Lyft, Uber has become a curious metonym for ridesharing, commonly used by proponents that frequently deride taxi cab companies hostile to ridesharing as a contemptible monopoly. Other “sharing” economy companies include Airbnb, WeWork, and TaskRabbit. They all tout the peer-to-peer interaction and transaction, stressing that they provide the scaffold to connect consumers directly with providers, no middleman. Need a ride? In the words of Drake, “call your ass an Uber.” Need a place to stay? Connect with a host on Airbnb. Need a workspace? WeWork has over 50 such locations across the globe. Leaky faucet? Find a plumber on TaskRabbit.
For something cast as revolutionizing the world around us, it doesn’t take much to scratch through the thin veneer disguising the complete banality of the “service” being offered. The middleman, that call to your landlord or a dispatcher, is not eliminated. No, instead the transaction is slightly modified, shifted from your phone to . . . an app on your phone. Within this array of uninspired, unimaginative products allegedly disrupting the status quo is Uber, a dispatcher-turned-app where a cabbie driving a car commutes you to a destination. A car with a combustion engine, technology invented in the late 19th century.
Uber’s reliance on euphemism is important because of what it obscures–and Uber wears these euphemisms like hats. When praise and cheerleading is required as a means to an end, they are a part of the “sharing” economy that democratizes how consumers purchase goods and services, and flattens the world. When circumventing regulatory frameworks that hinder expansion and threaten to cap their ever-increasing valuation (Uber’s stated valuation, though contested, is higher than General Motors), they are a “transportation network company.”
Uber’s most clever obfuscation is their role as an employer. Just like their vile, “Luddite” competitors, they classify their drivers (called “partners”) as independent contractors rather than employees. This status bars drivers from the collective bargaining that cabbies engaged in decades ago, before taxi cab companies’ busted their unions.
Uber proponents rail about an inconsistent fare system. Uber usurps the capacity to gouge from drivers and calls it surge pricing, surging at convenient times like hurricanes or blizzards. Dispatchers can screw over particular cabbies by not directing fares their way. Uber simply “deactivates” theirs–and never tell the driver the reason. They have so radically reinvented the taxi industry, their app doesn’t even allow tipping, forcing drivers to seek out a third party service to collect tips electronically. Yet another expense for drivers already responsible for their cars’ maintenance and insurance—remember, Uber doesn’t even own the fleet. And, like every other company experiencing worker resistance, they threaten them into apathy. If that fails, and even if it doesn’t, they are working on and perfecting automating drivers out of the very jobs Uber argues that they create with autonomously piloted cars.
A recent law empowered the Capital District Transit Authority (CDTA) to regulate the local taxi industry. This is a positive step. Municipal leaders should further empower them to create a fare system that is reasonable, predictable, and consistent to working class consumers and out-of-town visitors. Flourishes presented as part of Uber’s appeal are common sense fixes that can be easily implemented locally.
CDTA could compel these companies to outfit their cars with credit card readers, develop e-hailing apps, standards of cleanliness, and introduce and enforce fair labor practices. They could charge these companies to supplement its limited budget to cover the costs of building out and administering this regulatory apparatus.
So do “We Need Uber?” No. Local taxicab service does need serious adjustment, but Uber merely replicates their model, maximizing the profit and the exploitation, without addressing customers’ underlying complaints. What they offer is certainly not innovative and it does not meet any definition of sharing. That’s not some persnickety semantic argument. Publicly owned bikesharing networks, municipal carsharing programs, and, most obviously, the bus, train or subway (or gondola!)–these are public goods and services that we all have equal access to and we must expand these truly shared forms of transportation and make them more accessible.