Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Uber: another side to the story (part 2) [post 24/100]

Yesterday I started a post about what lies under the usual Uber arguments. Today it continues…

4. Uber shows you (the gaps in) the local market
In London, UberEx is almost always a better experience than the local minicab company. Having spoken to loads of Uber drivers, I now know that the best of them are refugees from the minicab ecosystem.

Minicab companies are known for treating drivers badly, forcing them to work unsafely long shifts and paying as little as possible. This obviously leads to unhappy drivers, which leads to unhappy passengers. It’s gotten worse over the last 5 or 6 years – my local minicab company used to be great, but their ownership changed and with it the policies, and I felt a palpable difference in the quality of service. That decline has accelerated since Uber came to town.

Uber’s flexible working hours and 80% payments lured the best drivers away from their former employers in droves. The only guys left working at many minicab companies are the ones that couldn’t make it on Uber.

With rising demand and, as mentioned, possibly dubious screening policies, Uber’s quality of service in London can be a bit rocky, but overall one can expect far more good experiences than bad.

In Stockholm, the UberEx experience is totally different. Not being fluent in Swedish, I’ve not been able to speak to many drivers as candidly, but talking to locals and fellow travellers, I suspect it’s also down to the ecosystem. In Stockholm, if you have a licence that entitles you to drive a taxi, you can make a very good living doing just that. There is no secondary minicab-like market, and the licensed taxis are free to compete and apparently able to run their businesses more or less as they see fit.

Thinking about it this way, it shouldn’t have surprised me that my very few UberEx experiences in Stockolm have been pretty depressing – old, cramped cars (one with heavy-duty plastic sheeting over the seats); sullen and not particularly smooth drivers. The decline in service wasn’t worth the money I saved, and since the guy with the plastic sheeting, I’ve stuck to licensed taxis or, in a pinch, Uber Exec.

Talking to a friend last night, it sounds like Amsterdam’s ecosystem is also interesting (one licensed taxi company has a fleet of Teslas!) but I don’t yet have enough experience with it to form a sound hypothesis.

Still, the fact remains: looking at the quality of service, relative satisfaction of drivers, availability and so forth can reveal a lot. Considering the why behind what’s happening uncovers a hidden layer of interactions that’s far more nuanced than first glances might suggest. And looking at a bit of the complexity behind the Uber debate shows, again, that it comes down to people seeking out value, getting what they want and need – in this case the drivers as well as the passengers. Where one employment opportunity has failed them, they’ve flocked to another; where the mainstream option is working, the newcomer struggles to gain a foothold.

Coming full circle, I don’t see enough thinking about the human factors in most of the coverage of the ‘to Uber or not to Uber’ question – at least, not enough thinking about the finely calibrated balance that makes up the ecosystem. It’s not just the passengers, it’s the drivers too. And the drivers aren’t robots, they’re people – some highly skilled, some less so. In other domains we take it for granted the people should benefit from the skills they’ve taken time to develop, and this instance should be no different.

And as always, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. Deals that seem too good to be true often carry hidden costs, and unregulated transportation is no exception. I’m not saying that it can’t have its place in a healthy ecosystem, I’m just suggesting we see it for what it really is before we decide what that place should be.