Letter from a reader : An Uber perspective from a former taxi driver.

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.








12 thoughts on “Letter from a reader : An Uber perspective from a former taxi driver.

  1. Humans already learned this lesson years ago (which is why taxi companies, limo services, bus companies, etc. are regulated) – driving anyone around for profit has a multitude of pitfalls that only regulation protects against.

    Like

  2. Mike Summers

    30 years driving cab was both rewarding and terrifying at once.
    Paying piss poor, it was my dream job.
    Also my nightmare from stress bringing on MS.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    Like

  3. e.a.f.

    thank you to the writer of the letter and to you for publishing it.

    We spend the early years of our life learning to never get into the vehicle of a strangers, then along comes Uber and its fashionable. Not a smart thing to do. I will taxis but not uber.

    As they say, Uber is just another corporate method of avoiding taxes and paying drivers. I can hardly wait for the model to be extended to other parts of the economy. Should be just a riot and a lot of lawsuits.

    Like

  4. ktron

    hmmm . . . “We get a system where workers are trained”

    Thanks to a nominally predictable bus system, a good bicycle, and a love of walking, I don’t have to use taxis very often. But every time I’ve used them in the two decades I’ve had to tell the driver how to get where I was going. What exactly are “workers” trained to do?

    This “letter” is at best a set of straw-men anecdotes.

    Obviously Uber presents a different model of “taxi” service. Clearly it requires oversight and regulation. And if Uber is “tax dodging” – we should shut down those loopholes. None of those problems constitute a valid argument to defend the current taxi model against new approaches.

    There are millions of under-utliized automobiles on our streets. Many of them are taxis that spend 3/4 of their existence idling in reserved parking spaces (paved, maintained, and protected by your municipal taxes). We need to stop glorifying the automobile – which means we need to stop glorifying the businesses that rely on its inherent inefficiencies. Clearly this means re-visiting how we define and regulate “taxis”.

    The majority of the arguments presented against Uber type services are easily dealt with through regulation. Let’s deal with them appropriately.

    It is never openly stated, but the only common argument in all of the anti-Uber stories is that we need to protect middle and upper management jobs at taxi companies. Is this really the case?

    Like

    1. Except for the part where Uber explicitly operates in a way that attempts to circumvent or outright ignore existing regulations with the goal of undermining them. This is what they mean when they call themselves “disruptive”.

      The entire business model is based on removing the regulations that protect drivers’ job security and both drivers’ and passengers’ safety so that Uber can make a few more dollars — dollars that will not go back into local economies, but rather will be vacuumed away to some money bin in Silicon Valley, or Ireland, or the Caymans.

      Assuming that there will be some form of regulation is insufficient; we cannot assume the existing regulations will adequately protecct drivers and passengers. Especially not when Uber’s goal is to weaken them because taking measures to protect drivers and passengers means sacrificing easy profits.

      Like

  5. G. Barry Stewart

    Thanks to the letter writer for a compelling first-hand account from the taxi driver’s viewpoint. Thanks also to Ktron’s counter-argument, with valid points made.

    It seems to me that if Ktron is in favour of regulations to make Uber rides safer for the driver and passenger — and ensure a reward for tax collectors — that the biggest advantage of Uber would be more cars/rides potentially available. Potentially.

    As a potential Uber driver, if I’m faced with meeting new regulations, such as upgrading my driver’s licence, paying more insurance and committing to vehicle safety inspections… maybe even getting a protective shield built into my vehicle: my “free” slice of the pie starts to get nibbled away. I’m left wondering, “Why don’t I just drive a taxi?”

    I can see how Uber would function in a wide-open libertarian market. We’re not that.

    Like

    1. ktron

      Imagine if even a quarter of the effort this problem is causing were put into improving public transit.

      As for having your pie nibbled vs. just driving a taxi :

      “Underlying much of the debate has been the issue of taxi owner licence (“taxi plate”) value. There are a limited number of plates issued by each of the former municipalities, and these plates have acquired a market value that can exceed $100,000 for Ottawa plates.”

      http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/transportation-and-parking/oc-transpo-and-public-transit/taxi-licensing

      $100,000 sounds like a pretty big nibble . . .

      Clearly Uber is not “the” answer – but at least its making people ask questions.

      The only people who think the status quo is acceptable either own taxi companies or they’re trying to pay off a $100k license. It’s not that taxi drivers aren’t nice guys . . . they are mostly guys too aren’t they . . . hmmm . . .

      Like

  6. G. Barry Stewart

    I know a man in the upper Fraser Valley, who had the jump on Uber as early as 2001. His partner sat by the phone at home and dispatched to “John” via walkie-talkie. He had his “office” in a central coffee shop. It was all under-the-table and John offered low-cost rides to low-income customers. He wasn’t getting rich at it but it supplemented any government assistance he might have been getting.

    If he’s still at it, no doubt John has eliminated his dispatcher and is packing a cell phone for direct calls.

    I’d bet that, unlike Uber, he had no “surge pricing” algorithm for New Year’s Eve, where ride rates shot up by 9x. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/uber-cab-ride-on-new-year-s-eve-pinches-customer-for-1-114-71-1.3387808

    Like

  7. 13

    Im not sure that this story has any real bearing for or against UBER. Its simply a tale of one very terrifying taxi trip for a driver. The training should have had police surrounding the taxi cab enrout e not at the terminus.
    Protecting the taxi companies from any competition only keeps the cost of a cab ride high. If the drivers choose to work for unscrupulous taxi owners then thats their choice. Much like trucking which is another Indo Canadian dominated industry. Piece work never lends itself to either safe driving nor good wages.
    Uber would allow these drivers to work for themselves instead of a taxi license holder. Maybe they are afraid that Uber will offer better safer service.

    Like

  8. G. Barry Stewart

    Here’s a useful opinion piece from the Guardian. The writer warns that Uber is controlled by a few wizards behind the curtain, intent on wiping out local taxi providers. Once that is done, they will have domination of another cash source… with slippery tax haven loopholes for avoiding taxes.

    First a quote, then the link to the full story:

    “Let us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.

    “Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).”

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/31/cheap-cab-ride-uber-true-cost-google-wealth-taxation?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+USA+-+Version+A&utm_term=154054&subid=16187802&CMP=ema_565a

    Like

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