No thanks Uber, I’m not signing your petition

So the ride-sharing app Uber is urging Vancouverites to sign a petition on its site to put pressure on the City to allow Uber to operate. An ad for the petition invaded my Twitter feed and I decided to take a closer look. Here’s the petition with my commentary. Spoiler: no, I’m not signing.

Uber begins by laying out “the situation”:

British Columbia and Vancouver are home to the quintessential winter playground, shining examples of liveable cities, and a launching pad for countless innovators and trailblazers across many industries.

That’s why so many residents are disappointed by Vancouver’s limited transportation options. To make matters worse, the Province of British Columbia, at the behest of the taxi industry, isn’t putting consumers first or thinking about how new innovations can create better transit solutions for all.

The ridesharing industry is a very new one, but cities all over the world are embracing it as a way to address the shortcomings of mass transit, reduce congestion and emissions, connect previously isolated neighborhoods, and overall bring cities together in a way never before imagined. These are benefits that people are experiencing right now in more than 220 cities around the world — but Vancouver isn’t among them.

Why thanks, we are quintessential innovators…wait a minute. Once we get past the sweet talk, Uber here points to a real problem, but offers a false solution. Transit shortcomings? Better transit is a worthy goal, only the natural solution would be more buses, lower fares and better service rather than deregulated taxis. The context for transit shortfalls is the systemic offloading of costs from the province government onto cities and an unwillingness to cover increased demand by taxes — at the same time as road infrastructure is rapidly expanded.

Isolated neighbourhoods? Granted, but again this is more a failure of urban planning than something that be solved by an app that helps people catch a cab. This is a perfect illustration of the hubris of Silicon Valley: the gap between pressing problems and technological quasi-fixes that enrich the Valley’s venture capitalists. The environmental benefits too may be overblown: ridesharing is certainly better than single-passenger driving but there is evidence that as Uber cuts prices, drivers have to spend more time driving looking for passengers. A car will always be much less environmentally-friendly than a bus or a subway and any system based on more cars will naturally push for more road infrastructure. Vancouver’s history at least has shown this can come at the cost of transit improvements.wpid-wp-1417653452329.jpeg

Uber isn’t interested in better transit or better public infrastructure: it’s interested in getting market share for its app. Its rationale for entering a city makes even more sense when other options are bad: the shittier the transit, the worse the regulated taxi industry, the better. And all the talk about a taxi lobby that has politicians in its back pocket is a bit rich for a company that hired its own prominent lobbyists in BC, likely only the beginning. In short, Uber is fighting a public funding shortfall with privatization, public policy failures with undersize techno-fixes, lobbying fire with lobbying fire.

Why?

The taxi industry is hard at work to shut out innovators like Uber and preserve their cartel. With the lowest number of taxis per capita in North America, Vancouver residents and visitors are woefully underserved when it comes to transportation options. While consumers are left stranded, the government continues to protect taxi interests under the guise of maintaining “industry health” a stated goal of the Passenger Transportation Board (PTB), and preventing “destructive competition,” as cited in countlessPTB decisions as reason for denying applications that would bring more supply, choice and competition to the market. Why do a select few rich taxi owners get the sworn protection of government agencies that are supposed to serve the public?

These are the usual complaints about the taxi industry — and many of them may be right. But it’s far too quick to pigeonhole anyone who questions Uber as a shill for the taxi industry. This is a testament to the closure of our collective imagination, not some conspiracy by the taxi bosses. Deregulation is not the only answer to sub-par regulation. Similarly, being against deregulation is not automatically to be in the same corner as a small, privileged lobby group.

Vancouver has too few taxis and the taxi industry is too heavily involved in lobbying. Changes in campaign finance and changes to taxi regulations would be good places to start to rectify the situation.

Besides, it’s not as if taxi drivers are making off with heaps of cash: the median annual salary for a Vancouver taxi driver was just $25,322 in 2013. The disruption so idealised by Uber will quickly disrupt the lives of drivers who are disproportionately immigrants and people of colour.

If you think the taxi industry is hard to regulate in the public interest then wait until Uber with its increasingly global reach and ballooning economic power becomes entrenched. Trading in one entrenched interest for another will in no way help the cause of rationally planning our transit and transportation systems in our own and the environment’s interest.

This is your chance to send a message to Vancouver and British Columbia officials that everyone deserves a new set of transportation choices.

Riders love Uber because the taxi industry doesn’t come close to offering the same convenience and reliability.

Yes, Uber has quickly found a following, especially so in cities where other transportation options are limited. While this is undeniable, a complicating question is what part of this demand comes from a lack of other options. A recent study showed that over half of Uber users would have taken a bus, a bike, walked or not taken the trip at all if the option wasn’t available — and if transit was better, you can bet this would be even more pronounced.

Uber’s recoil from any kind of regulation also undercuts its commitment to all of its riders. Take the disabled whose concerns with Uber and the like have been too-little-publicized. While Uber makes vague commitments to dialogue and taking the needs of the disabled into account, the lack of firm regulations means these will likely remain unenforced pleasantries. In the relatively small market for taxi-type services, disabled individuals are a group who more expensive needs are suffering first as radically deregulatory companies like Uber take over.

One final element of all this I haven’t seen discussed much is the use of the rating system (the passenger on each trip rates the driver on a scale from 1 to 5 and drivers are fired if their ratings fall below an average of about 4.6) just turns more of our everyday interactions into forced and excessive enthusiasm — a numbers game with big consequences for one side.

Drivers love Uber because it provides higher earnings, unparalleled flexibility (be your own boss!) and increased safety on the road thanks to our cashless technology.

Or are they just afraid to speak out against a company ruthless in silencing criticism? In fact, the treatment of drivers is one of the biggest problems with Uber.

In short, Uber pretends that it has “partners” rather than employees whereas in reality it is simply dumping the vast majority of business risks onto drivers who end up without the protections of a formal employee relationship but often looking very much like workers otherwise. This is the thin edge of the wedge of an economy that leaves workers more vulnerable.

Drivers report having to work increasing hours just to keep up as rates go down once Uber establishes itself, all the while treated as disposable by the company. Drivers have also launched protests and campaigns to unionize to improve conditions. Uber has not been impressed and remains extremely anti-union.

Drivers who own their cars are responsible for maintenance, insurance and other costs. A rigorous analysis of a typical New York and San Francisco UberX driver’s earnings after all expenses found them to be around the average of those of a taxi driver. And this working 70 hours per week! If the worry is that taxi drivers are at the mercy of the taxi corporations then Uber seems to be no different.

If waiting longer for a cab is inconvenient then deteriorating daily working conditions are nowhere in the same league; the way Uber already treats its drivers is the strongest argument to hold the enthusiasm.

Cities love Uber because it connects residents and visitors to a ride when they need one, serves neighborhoods that taxis continuously neglect, reduces DUI incidents and fatalities, and decreases congestion and pollution by taking unnecessary vehicle traffic off the road.

In fact, cities around the world (including Toronto and Ottawa) are fighting Uber and it is hard to believe they are all driven puppet-like by Big Taxi. There are numerous legitimate concerns as outlined above: from worker rights to the concerns of the disabled to transit planning to the uncertain effects on congestion and the environment.

Stand up for choice in Vancouver and sign the petition — because a bold and innovative city like Vancouver deserves bold and innovative solutions like Uber. Let your voice be heard! #VancUBER

Of course, this whole petition is just a marketing exercise but regardless: No #thankouver, Uber. I’m not buying it.

9 thoughts on “No thanks Uber, I’m not signing your petition

  1. I agree with you that public transport in this city is in a dismal state, but is bashing/banning Uber going to make things better?

    When I was in Washington, I used it and it’s just another cab company ( hi-tech version). Period. FYI, Uber is popular in some cities because some cab companies won’t pick visible minorities because of “safety” measures. Uber picks everyone up.

    Your opinion?

    1. I think it’s really disingenuous for Uber to use the example of transit underfunding because it simply serves their cause.

      The concern I and many others have is that Uber and much of the rest of the “sharing” economy represents the thin edge of the wedge of changing employment relationships even further towards total offloading of risk and cost onto workers. The more relevant difference for me is not how consumers experience Uber but how drivers do (and yes some love it, but the overall model and the changes that get instituted once an initial friendlier phase wears off don’t point in a good direction). In some sense, an upside of this increased precarity is that it enforces all kinds of discipline, including some forms of anti-discrimination. On the downside, as the example of disability shows, when the anti-discrimination actually requires costly physical infrastructure…not so much. And more importantly it’s a whole lot of negative discipline too.

      Also, on a side note, I think the quote near the very end of that clip where the reporter sets it up as regulation in the general interest versus the needs of small business is interesting not so much in whether it’s right/wrong or applicable/inapplicable but in how Uber’s libertarian defenders use it in their narrative…

  2. When it comes to access to the disabled, why can’t a simple city bylaw solve this ( For example, one car out of five must be suitable for the disable…)? Wouldn’t downright banning Uber be an overkill?

    I agree that the Uber drivers are in a much more precarious position than cab drivers, but what about Lift or Sidecar? By allowing Uber to operate, these other companies would also come in. Also, if we were to ban an industry due to precarity of its workers, why not real estate agents then?

  3. a fallacy of Mr. Rozworski’s article is the solutions he offers. Getting government agencies to work for the people obviously hasn’t worked for Vancouver in the past. What’s different for the future? Perhaps competition from uber would incentivize taxi companies and local mass transit to be more responsive to the ridership. How can there be too few taxi’s? Why doesn’t supply meet demand?

  4. Ride sharing technology will be are a crucial for creating affordable, flexible transportation options that make living without owning a car viable. Uber is undeniably a massive improvement in reducing the environmental costs of car usage. (Have you ever tried to get a cab on a friday night?!)

    Also, your argument about the drivers is missing the point. Read into the taxi cartel in vancouver. Off market taxi medallions cost up to a million fucking dollars. To get one current drivers GO INTO DEBT like a god damn mortgage just for the privilege to have the legal right to work to pay somebody off for the right to drive a cab. It’s horrible, and the only ones who benefit are the owners of the medallions.

  5. First off, sorry I’ve been so bad at keeping up with comments on the blog lately. I agree that there are problems with transport in Vancouver, including not only transit underfunding but also taxi licensing. My main gripe with those who say don’t criticize Uber is that a lot of the arguments revolve around how bad existing things are, not anything right about Uber. Uber is also an owner — of its app and related technologies — and uses these to screw drivers. Just because taxi medallion owners are bad doesn’t mean ride-sharing app owners will be good or even better.

    Having said that though, I think Uber and other sharing economy companies have hit a nerve with how they advertise themselves and the fact that lots of people use them and find them useful cannot be dismissed. I think Doug Henwood’s (http://www.thenation.com/article/196241/what-sharing-economy-takes) critique of the sharing economy is one of the best out there precisely because it criticizes while taking very seriously the fact that people are willingly and happily using these services. The point is what this reflects of broader economic relationships.

    1. Continuing a critique of the Vancouver taxi cartel.. err.. industry, check out this damning report: http://t.co/FEljaLgB2c

      Collusion, price fixing, and market manipulation runs rampant in Vancouver’s taxi industry. IMO from a social justice perspective, Uber is great. Drivers at Uber report loving the job: they can workever when they want during hours they want. It’s an excellent source of supplemental income. No boss to dehumanize you, or make you stand on your feet all day under dangerous conditions. Others have told me they find the work relaxing, or do it because they find it interesting to talk to new passengers.

      You won’t get rich being a driver, but you will net income above minimum wage with waaay less of the stress. Taxi drivers with medallions are forced into debt to pay for them and work back breaking 12 hour shifts. The car, it’s regulation, and limits, all artificially raise prices for a key mechanism to reducing car ownership.

      —————–

      As for Uber’s advertising. It’s a rapidly growing company in a winner-takes-all market. It’s fair to say that some regulation of Uber is justified (around data, etc.), but not over ridesharing itself.

      I’m sure you can find cases of taxi drivers committing crimes all the time. Uber will obviously have the same thing, but the protections in place are now even better. The feedback/rating system pressures good behaviour heavily. The GPS of the rider’s/drivers movements are recorded, as is the ride. I would argue these mechanisms give you better control/safety than a taxi does.

      With UberX there is a small chance of an amateur driver causing a problem, but the feedback mechanism does a great job of weeding them out. Generally drivers with less than 4 stars out of 5 are not welcomed to continue to be uber drivers, and Uber investigates bad ratings to make sure both parties get a fair shake before making a judgement to remove a driver.

    2. Michal, that is a good article.

      But fighting or banning Uber won’t fight the broader underlying issues of unfairness within capitalism that are driving people’s concerns. I see the interwining of a sharing economy with a minimum basic income as key to how we solve our problems. Technology is making our lives better, but we need to find ways to combine that with fairer distributions of capital.

      A driver-less car will leave many unemployed, and Uber even richer. But society will be undeniably better for having that technology itself despite its economic effects. Our economy should reshape to address technological developments if those developments improve the human condition.

  6. Thanks for the kinds words about the article. I’m still much less sanguine about the sharing economy as it exists, which is why perhaps I don’t think that UBI plus the Silicon Valley vision of the “sharing” economy would not change that much. As to some of the specifics…

    Much of what I’ve seen points to driver pay and satisfaction going down after an initial “honeymoon” phase where the Uber-set rates are higher and workloads needed to maintain a certain income lighter (though by no means light in any case). Since Uber is so new, much of the evidence is anecdotal in both directions but my understanding is that it’s nowhere near as rosy as some accounts (especially earlier ones) made it seem. In fact, from what it seems Uber is becoming involved in car financing deals with some drivers that actually would speak directly to the debt worries you have about taxi medallions.

    As to technology like GPS tracking, that can be instituted under a range of institutional arrangements. And, in fact when it comes to the ratings system, I don’t think this is an uncritically good thing, which I suggested in the post. There is a big difference between ensuring safe environments and subjecting people to constantly being rated. We’re moving towards a society where we are constantly asked to rate not only things but each other (often on simplified 1-5 scales) in a way that only deepens a shallow individualism based on a self cultivated for the purpose of such ratings. I think this is part of a particularly American “tyranny of positive thinking (and being!)” that many have written about (e.g. Barbara Ehrenreich) and that is increasingly a required disposition.

    I suppose my basic point is that arguing against one bad (the structure of the taxi industry) is not the same as automatically arguing for one particular alternative, even if it happens to be the one with the greatest chance of replacing that bad. In fact, much of the technology behind the rising sharing economy giants would be well-suited for more distributed, co-operative ownership and management. Instead, we get new monopolies or oligopolies rising up in place of the old. I am all for technological progress, especially in ways that get rid of human drudgery. I just think we come closer to arguing for a just, democratic use of technology by looking critically at Uber rather than boosting it. We might be at an impasse over this and fair enough.

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