On the whole, the gals and guys at MT think Uber is a good thing. And why not? It’s convenient, efficient, cheap – an eminently sensible solution to the problems of urban transportation and congestion. But this has earned us not a little enmity from the taxi drivers who are at the sharp end of digital disruption.
Up to 8,000 of them are protesting today from Trafalgar Square to Whitehall against what they see as the backdoor deregulation of the industry, or at least the lax approach of officials at TfL and the government toward imposing existing regulations on the American newcomers. Bringing the capital to a standstill may be an unreasonable way of making your point (this isn’t Paris, after all), but it does at least prompt a discussion of their argument – which is only fair.
It goes broadly like this. The existing regulations on taxi drivers and private hire vehicles are beneficial to the public, but they come with costs. Uber is being allowed to get away with flaunting these regulations, which is giving them an unfair advantage, ultimately hurting taxi drivers, consumers and even Uber drivers themselves. Everyone except the Silicon Valley bigwigs, in fact.
They have a point – up to a point. Regulations about safety are generally beneficial of course, and Uber is arguably getting an unfair advantage of a sort. As a new technology, it just doesn’t sit in either the for-hire or private hire moulds that the legislation is designed for.
In the old world, for-hire cabs had expensive burdens such as having to learn the Knowledge, but in exchange for that they got the right to be hailed on the street. Private cabs had to wait, which preserved the balance between them, while offering customers two distinct choices. Everybody won.
Ride-hailing (and indeed modern GPS) technology changes that. It gives private hire vehicles the advantage in speed and convenience as well as price, something they couldn’t have had before. The proposals that TfL ditched were officially designed to amend the regulations to take this into account, but in effect they would have served to stifle the new technology and ultimately deny customers a superior product. This was why we branded them Luddite.
An imposed wait of five-minutes, for instance, does not serve the consumer – it just maintains an increasingly obsolete status quo. It’s nonsense that it’s better for the busy public to make them wait.
The taxi drivers may have legitimate gripes on certain matters – (they say for instance that they’re being undercut by Uber effectively using zero-hour contracts and not giving the usual employee benefits; Uber says its drivers have an excellent hourly rate and the flexibility they want). But ultimately the strict regulations and legal challenges they propose don’t serve the public interest.
On the other hand, allowing a long-established industry to die suddenly – with many jobs going and many more being effectively downgraded into casual labour - doesn’t exactly serve the public interest either. It is perhaps therefore how to manage the decline of the cabbie gently that should be the centre of this debate, not whether or not to effecrtively ban technological progress outright.