I can’t seem to get away from Uber lately – if it’s not another article on its disruptive genius or its double-digit-billions valuation, it’s another article about its equally disruptive misogyny. While both of these are valid discussions, I think there’s more to the picture than I see in a lot of the stories about the former (I’m not arguing the latter). So that’s the topic of today’s and tomorrow’s posts. I make these points not to try to discredit or defend anyone’s side in particular – rather, I want to point out that the argument about Uber and whether or how it should be allowed to continue is more nuanced than what’s presented a lot of the time. And in that sense, it’s quite an interesting systems thinking case.
1. Uber != taxi
The thing I hear said most often in defence of Uber is that it’s cheaper than a taxi and people deserve to have a cheaper option, therefore it should be allowed to continue. Now, I’m all about choice, but the fact is you can’t compare Uber 1:1 with the local taxi service in any place I’ve used it. Leaving aside questions of quality (for now), the most fundamental difference is the core agreement each has with its passengers. If you get into a city-certified taxi, you have guaranteed rights that are backed by the government – these rights include safety (both the cars and the drivers are checked out), pricing (a fixed model) and in some cases knowledge (see below). If you get into an Uber, you have whatever rights their current agreement gives you, backed by nobody. If they decide tomorrow to change their terms of service, their pricing model, whatever, they can do that – there’s nobody to stop them.
2. Uber really != London Black Cab
The London Black Cab is, for my money, one of the very best services that has ever existed, at least in the travel & transportation domain. Every single driver has literally encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s streets, and often deep knowledge of its history too. Not only will they get you where you’re going more safely and quickly than anyone else can, they’ll give you a great conversation (if you want one) on your way. Their cars are invariably clean, comfortable and free of unpleasant odours, and every single black cab driver speaks fluent English. No other service in London, nor in any other city I’m aware of, gives you that guarantee every time you open the door and get in.
Sure it costs more, but it’s a premium service. You’re not just paying for someone with a driving licence who can read a SatNav, you’re paying for someone who spent years learning every single street in London (it’s called The Knowledge), and a significant amount of money on a comfortable vehicle with guaranteed manoeuvrability* – your fare is their return on investment. I still take black cabs when I’m in Zone 1, because they’re simply so much better. But they’re hard to find near my house, so I also use Uber, particularly UberEx.
With UberEx, you’re paying for someone with a driving licence and access to a functioning vehicle, who can hopefully read SatNav and perhaps understand you. I’ve had one Uber driver who’d done some of The Knowledge but had to quit due to family issues – he was by far the best Uber experience I’ve had. Which brings me to my next point:
3. Uber (below Exec level) is not predictable
The Uber Exec experiences I’ve had have been uniformly good everywhere I’ve tried it – as far as I can tell, these drivers are experienced, courteous, have been driving in the high-end market for some time. But in the tiers below that, the experience varies pretty widely from city to city (at least in Europe; I’ve not yet tried it elsewhere), and even from journey to journey. In a single month using UberEx in London, I had a driver who couldn’t understand a single word I said apart from ‘hello,’ one who tried to cheat my friend by leaving his meter on after he dropped me off (she was paying), one who went out of his way to return the gloves I’d left in his backseat, and one who gave me the most fantastic lift to Heathrow, despite my brutal hangover and the hellish traffic that made me very nearly miss my flight.
When I talk to the better drivers about my mixed experiences, they’re concerned – they know that if the quality of service goes down, people might stop using it. They say there’s just so many people applying that there’s no time to screen them. I say that sounds like some dodgy business right there – sure, the guys who are poor drivers or don’t speak English will get booted soon enough based on bad ratings, but if I’m agreeing to a certain level of fees then I think I have a right to expect a certain level of service. Is it fair of Uber to use its passengers to screen new drivers? See point 1.
Even with these ups and downs, UberEx is usually better than local London minicab company. Which is part of something I find quite interesting that I’ll write about tomorrow: Uber shows you the shape of (and gaps in) the local market.
*black cabs are required to have a 25 foot turning radius, which is the smallest you can get for that size of car.