UBER VERSUS NYC
This was bound to happen here. It has happened elsewhere. The grassroots ingenuity of transport services, more specifically Uber and to a lesser extent Lyft, offer a convenient alternative to mass transit and traditional cab services. In the case of Uber, which thanks to my friend Dan Bern I personally used to great effect in my spring visit to Nashville, Tennessee – a town spread out into disparate neighborhoods yet bereft of available conveyance for those not wanting to rent a car – it adds a fairly unregulated number of extra vehicles to the area while threatening the livelihoods of the existing official vehicular fleet. In other words, Uber is to a region-city-town-county what Napster was to the music business. There may be compromise and reshuffling, but there will be no going back.
In Nashville, for instance, it took months of wrangling with the local cab services to settle on an agreement to infuse the Uber fleet into the city’s environment, mostly because many of the cabbies (minuscule in comparison to a metropolis silly with them like NYC) saw an opportunity for themselves to break out and become Uber drivers.
Uber drivers must pass a rigorous review of driving records and other key personal histories, but is according to the drivers I spoke to more lucrative than the traditional hack route. It is a well-oiled concept that invites single moms, college students, struggling lower-economic, two-job types, and others to take on a livery business to help make ends meet. Some drivers I met in Nashville raved about its flexibility and its boost to their incomes (average Uber income per hour is $12, while it is $30 in NYC). Some loved it as a distraction – one woman concerned my brothers-in-law and myself by boldly stating she had been driving people around town for some thirty hours without sleep and wondered (if she hadn’t passed out by then) if we needed a ride to the airport the next day. Needless to say we passed on her, but used Uber nonetheless.
Uber is cheaper than cab and car services simply because there is no expected tipping. You sign up through an app on your phone, connect it to your credit card or Paypal and hit it. Within minutes, depending on where you’re an independent driver arrives promptly. In Nashville we rarely waited more than four to five minutes for a car, most times it was two to three minutes.
But Nashville is a burb compared to places like Chicago, L.A., Houston, and especially the largest city on the planet, New York. In fact, my only Uber experience in NYC was a bad one. In early June my wife and I found ourselves in our usual position of fairly inebriated on McDougal Street in the Village and it was late and we needed to get back to our hotel in Tribeca. Normally I’d hail a cab and end of story, but I decided to try out Uber in the big town. I hit the app and a car was promised in three minutes. The car purportedly showed up on Bleecker around the corner in the requisite time. Not sure why it wasn’t in front of us. The driver called me, but the street was buzzing with people and traffic and it was hard to hear him. I explained that we were around the corner, but his response was unintelligible. Just then a free cab happened to be passing right by us, so I flagged it, told the Uber guy never mind, and went about our business. The next day I received a ten-dollar cancellation fee from Uber. I wanted to fight it, but screw it.
I ended up using cabs the rest of my brief stay that weekend, and part of me felt it right, since cabbies have always held a special place in my heart. I’ve had some amazing adventures in cabs all over this world. Drivers always take my advice and always put the pedal to the medal – I rarely trust any cabbie that does not blatantly break the law, especially in NYC. It is a must. And, on a personal note, my grandfather was a proud member of the hack brigade and I believe in supporting these guys/gals whenever possible.
This takes us to the issue at hand. City of New York Mayor Bill De Blasio is now faced with the same dilemma as every New York mayor before him, how to integrate progress into the city construct seamlessly without destroying the echo-structure of the town. He must simultaneously serve all New Yorkers; consumers and workers, while managing the progress of capitalism. New York’s history is filled with these moments, and for the most part New York was the experiment for the rest of the country, the most significant of these were canals, roadways, social programs, fiscal parameters, subways, building, or general infrastructure, and a host of inventions thrown into an urban environment left to its own devices.
De Blasio claims that Uber and Lyft present a possible ecological and traffic-congestion problem to the city. His latter claim is not unfounded. Uber adds hundreds of cars a day to the already uber-(pun intended)-congested streets, and having driven for over four decades around all five boroughs (I parceled medical records around NYC during the late 80s and early 90s to supplement my meager freelance earnings), I can tell you it ain’t beanbag. I have seen things on the byways of NYC that are hard to explain in print. Suffice to say – though since the city’s rebirth in the mid-90s things have been less hair-raising – it is not an easy town to traverse. This is the concern of city officials, as much as the added smelly and dangerous exhaust the additional vehicles provide. But I shan’t go down a road that claims that a few less cars will save New York from its noxious fumes. That is part of the charm, come on.
De Blasio has begun his push-back by imposing limits to the amount of cars Uber can have “on the job” at any one time. I don’t think this unreasonable, but as a business model, no one wants to have “limits” imposed on your expansion, and Uber is expanding big time. The company estimates adding 25,000 customers every week.
Ultimately Uber and Lyft will win out. This is not an if but when and how.
Uber is making its case that by rightfully pointing out that De Blasio has another reason for his push-back, NYC cabs are in jeopardy of going the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Also, more ubiquitous and affordable modes of transportation via the car lowers the mass-transit numbers, which every mayor wants to keep up, freeing the streets of congestion. Uber has countered with a multi-million dollar ad campaign online and on TV suggesting that lower-income, minority travelers now have an option, especially in the outer-boroughs, where cabs loathe to tread; specifically because they are not guaranteed a return fare.
But the sinister underbelly of this, which puts De Blasio in a tight bind to his liberal constituency, is that cabbies for decades have refused to pick up black and Hispanic fares for a variety of reasons that do not jibe with the civil rights of these individuals. Uber has no such agenda or history. De Blasio and the cab lobby cannot hide from this argument. It is real. I have seen it myself and spoken to those who have been denied rides.
Uber also has a hidden, less than moral-outrage argument for its own push-back. If Uber becomes part of the regulation of NYC-Transit, does it lose its “affordable” outside the system appeal?
Ultimately Uber and Lyft will win out. This is not an if but when and how. Maybe a compromise is coming, but if De Blasio or city officials think by ignoring a popular service with progressive tendencies a winning quotient in NYC, they will also go the way of the horse and buggy.
As usual, the rest of the nation watches the outcome.