The Ottawa Senators are in for awkward times after team members mocked their coach in front of the watchful eye of an Uber camera. But the conversation buzzing today is a chance to rethink the ride-hailing services many of us don’t give a second thought, argues Convivium Publisher Peter Stockland.
Convivium Weekly: Our wrap-up of notable news, ideas, and images— sent by email. Get Convivium Weekly delivered to your inbox.
I see in the news that Uber is embroiled in public controversy yet again with its Twitter release of an embarrassing dash-cam video of Ottawa Senators players mocking a coach while using the so-called ride sharing service.
The tweet of the private conversation, captured Oct. 29 when the team was between games in Las Vegas and Arizona, has reportedly risked locker room dissension, and led to humiliated apologies all round including, fittingly, from Uber itself.
What surprises me is that anybody’s surprised. An Uber driver showed utter disrespect for the norms of reasonable behavior, and flagrantly disregarded how his actions might harm others? Do tell. That’s the way, as I’ve been arguing for several years, the company itself rolls. It’s the zeitgeiston which it was founded. It happens every time an Uber poaches a fare.
Leaving Ottawa’s VIA Rail station this week, for example, I watched a fancy-schmancy black sedan stop in a cross walk and force a lineup of departing taxis to wait while a well-dressed passenger slipped into the back seat.
The full-bore hostility of the taxi horns clued me in immediately that the offending fancy-schmancy was an Uber, which had taken a fare from cabbies parked in pre-dawn darkness for who knew how long awaiting arrival of Train 51 from Montreal. Full disclosure: I am, as the saying goes, “world famous in Winnipeg” for my objection to Uber. Those who know me, know I dislike it intensely. I once cleared a lunch gathering in 10 seconds flat just by beginning a fresh tirade against it. My colleagues fled in all directions, hands clapped over ears.
Yet I confess to recognizing late that my target has been wrong all along. The problem isn’t Uber or any other ride-sharing company. The soft spot is us as users of those services. Uber et al do only what we enable them to do. And whatever their sins, they are only a symptom, not a cause, of our social architecture shattering into micro-particles. They are catalysts in a million-plus tiny acts of tearing the social fabric each day, each one too miniscule and isolated for us to see the damage done.
What’s an Uber ride across town, after all, compared to the apparently imminent apocalypse of climate change or Donald Trump’s dark Satanic milling about? Besides, it all began with such giddy technological good intentions, and suits like sugar the contemporary addiction to self-interested obliviousness.
Indeed, Uber did begin as a putative market solution to perceived problems created by State-mandated monopolies in the taxi industry. The advent of apps allowed purportedly independent drivers to be hailed by smart phone or tablet the way anyone might text a friend to swing by and provide a lift. It was a noble lie that covered the tracks of its illegality, breach of contract, and use of chauffeurs who were untrained, unregulated, and in many cases unable to find a given address using GPS and a coffee-stained Rand McNally road map combined.
Defenders of the service continue to advocate the slow-train-to-Utopia approach. Uber’s problems, like all techno-driven problems that argument goes, are but the natural indicators, of capitalism’s capacity to create progress powered by economic disruption. Doubters and bitter critics (hi, mom!) are advised to stand by in joyful attendance on the glory of that rosy-fingered dawn when perfection will be delivered to our doors.
Alas, it turns out Nirvana’s arrival has been delayed indefinitely. Even the libertarian-tilting Economist magazine reports this week that the promises of the much-ballyhooed “sharing economy” aren’t meeting, shall we say, the test of truth. If ride sharing wasn’t meant to return our city centres to verdant pasture lands, it was at least supposed to make us greener by reducing use of cars.
Ah, no. The publication quotes American traffic consultant Bruce Schaller as saying“estimates that over half of all Uber and Lyft trips in big American cities would otherwise have been made on foot or by bike, bus, subway or train. He reckons that ride-hailing services add 2.8 vehicle miles of driving in those cities for every mile they subtract,” the Economist reports.
And what do all those added miles add up to? Not transport safety salvation, that’s for sure. On the contrary, research done academics at the infamously free market University of Chicago and Rice University shows ride sharing adds almost 1,000 deaths a year to the existing slaughter on U.S. highways and byways.
But surely the economic benefits of demolishing monopoly business practice is worth a little extra greenhouse gas and a 3.5 per cent bump in the fatality rate, isn’t it? Well, not if you’re one of the hundreds of largely immigrant cabbies in New York City who’ve been sent spiraling down what the New York Times calls the “devolution into poverty” that has caused the suicides of six financially destitute drivers since the Big Apple’s taxi industry collapsed. Certainly not if you’re one of three taxi company owner-operators who have launched a $1.7 billion lawsuit against the City of Toronto for allowing the ride share industry to break the law, and in the process eviscerate the value of legally licensed cab companies.
According to spokesmen for the trio spearheading the Toronto law suit, the value of city-mandated taxi plates has dropped to $30,000 from about $400,000 only five years ago.
“My retirement just went down the tubes,” Lawrence Eisenberg, owner of Lucky 7 Taxi, told the Toronto Star.
It’s instructive that Eisenberg and his co-plaintiffs correctly see what has happened to them as a political, rather than a commercial, travesty. The political class throughout North America and Europe abjectly failed to protect not just the taxi industry (which, ironically, previous generations of politicians actually created by regulatory fiat) but to safeguard the rule of law and the sanctity of contract. They allowed the so-called rules of the market to change without warning but, much worse, without even formally, democratically changing the rules. That’s what the lawsuit in Toronto, and companion lawsuits in Ottawa and Quebec, are all about.
Legal end games aside, it’s also about much more. We can’t just pass the buck to the politicos. We all bear responsibility to the degree that we have agreed to participate in transactions that fail to even consider, much less take into full account, the effect on our fellow citizens, our neighbours, other human beings. That’s not setting a standard of Pecksniffian moralism. It’s simple asking us to own up to our responsibility as social architects. i.e., as co-creators of the world in which we live.
If that remains unclear, I can show you some cabbies outside the VIA Rail station in Ottawa who’ll be happy to horn in and help you understand. Or just watch the next Sens game for the players still hanging their heads in shame from the über lesson they’ve learned.
Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!