I’ve been busy researching for upcoming posts on Site C and BC Hydro next week – there is a lot to cover since BC Hydro filed suit against the Treaty 8 Rocky Mountain campers along with a few local farmers and residents supporting them – but I’m taking a break from the keyboard this weekend.
I generally don’t make posts out of emails or letters that I get- that is what the comment section is for – but thought this one merited special attention because it concerns the ongoing Uber debate, and comes from a former taxi driver. His name has been withheld to protect his identity.
I'm troubled by the political debate being generated over allowing Uber into the BC transportation market. Here are several concerns and a couple of stories (names are fictional) from my years of experience in the taxi industry as a driver, dispatcher and manager. I haven't had any skin in the game for 16 years now, but I doubt anything has substantially changed in terms of the hours taxi drivers work, their work conditions, or the wages they bring home to their families. The first of my concerns is "Branding". Uber is "ride sharing" which sounds nice, but it's false. Uber represents a different model of a taxi service, but it's still a for profit operation, multinational in scale, avoiding US taxes by splintering offices off to tax havens like any other multinational. To brand Uber as "the sharing economy" is fundamentally dishonest. So what do we get under our current model of taxi service? We get a system with a limited number of licenses available, protecting the ability of the workers to earn a living. We get a system where workers are trained and adequately insured. We get a system where in most cases, a dispatch office operates, and someone knows, if a car "disappears" the approximate location of the car at the time it fell out of communication. We get a system with a measure of local accountability for complaints launched by the consumer. The second concern is the disservice to the current cohort of taxi drivers when we hear that the consumer is being "ripped off". I met David outside a 7-11 in September 2007. I hadn't seen him for many years. He was a taxi driver, who, unlike me, made his life's living from it. We chatted, and I learned that David was temporarily homeless. David is an intelligent guy, an encyclopedia of baseball statistics. David is quick-witted and sardonic. He was homeless because he had contracted a heart condition , causing him to be unfit to drive. He was six weeks shy of being able to collect CPP. His cash reserves had run out, and welfare was not enough to rent an apartment in this city, so he was sleeping rough. I met him again in November, and he now had CPP and had managed to secure low rent accommodation in one of the cheaper condo towers in town. He said..'Yeah, it's a great building. You never have to wait for an elevator because there's a dealer on every floor..." Reality check. There are exemptions to labor laws for taxi drivers. Shifts are 10-12 hours in length. The minority of drivers own their own cars and licenses.. Most either work on commission or a per-shift lease agreement. The most I ever "took home" from a single shift was $300 (during a snowstorm in the 1980's) and the least I ever took home from a shift was $25. The average (again, in the 80's) was about $80). Meter rates, lease rates, fuel costs, have all changed since then, but David spent well over 30 years working in the industry and wound up homeless in the fall of 2007. The second story is my own. I'd left full time work in the taxi business years before, but during a short work transition, rather than collect EI, I decided to pick up a few shifts and get by that way. I won't pretend this experience is representative day to day, but when you let people into your car whose circumstances you don't know ,or when you get into a stranger's car, all kinds of things can happen. The vast majority of the time, the worst thing taxi drivers deal with is inebriation. It's pretty harmless. On this day I answered a call at a pretty ordinary Motel at 6 PM on a sunny May evening, A man waiting outside got in and yelled an address at me.. His voice was panicked and angry and I couldn't make out the address. He pounded his window with his fists and yelled "Just F**ing Go!.. I went. The next 15 minutes was the most terrifying of my life. The man in the back couldn't stop wailing away with his fists on the seats, the windows, and he yelled directions at me. He yelled at himself.."I've f**cked everything up.. I've f* **d up ".... This is so surreal you may well not understand. I get that. At one point he yelled "Stop!". I stopped. For just a few second, he jumped out of the car and pounded his fists on a tree beside the car...He got back in bleeding. Why didn't I hit the accelerator in the few seconds he was out? I'll never know. I was frozen , terrified of this man filled with a kind of panicked rage I had never encountered. And I understood what he was doing..He was hitting everything but me because he needed me to get somewhere. During the ride to his destination I don't believe I had a single conscious thought though. I just did whatever the hell he wanted. I let him out in front of a small house in a blue collar neighborhood. The postage stamp lawn was littered with children's toys. I drove a hundred yards up the road and parked, and breathed. My dispatcher was on the radio asking me what was happening. Apparently the dispatcher had been calling me for ten minutes. I gave him the address where I dropped the guy off. In just a couple of minutes 7 or 8 police cars surrounded the house. I don't know what happened after that. It was the last shift I ever drove taxi. I could tell many more stories, but most of the time, taxi drivers make a precarious, honest enough living doing something that has some protections attached for both themselves and for the consumer. They have to be street smart, but they provide service to the disabled, to the hurried, to the drunk and the sober without prejudice. There are times when the driver in a story like the one above is actually harmed, unlike me. Those times are rare given the inherent risks, but do you still feel "ripped off" when you pay a stranger $40 to get home after you've had a few? I don't. The government needs to make decisions about Uber. It needs to make policy that protects both workers and consumers. That means regulation and oversight. It doesn't mean sound-bites and it doesn't mean devising a political wedge issue for by-elections.