Imagine if in 2007 every major newspaper in Canada, North America, and/or the world teamed up to sue Google. Why? Google had created a function by which you could read articles from any newspaper, anywhere, delivered right to your computer on any topic you wished and in the end you paid nothing for the privilege. It would be unfair and incorrect to lay the fall of newspapers at the feet of Google, but it would be disingenuous to say that free news from anywhere to anywhere, courtesy of Google, didn't help the situation.
Now let's apply that principle to Uber, the new ride-sharing app that has generated responses of every sort, from warm and welcoming, to stoic resignation, to litigious fervour, to actual arson and riots. Understandable in some respects, people's livelihoods are stake, and Uber is offering all the convenience of a taxi ride at a fraction of the price and without any of that pesky and costly licensing nonsense. The fire and brimstone from cabbies worldwide makes sense, but at the same time, why do they want to be insulated from technological change? Newspapers weren't. Nor were the people that once bred horses for mass transportation, or the people that built wooden ships, or made clothing and furniture by hand only to be replaced by machines...
Of course, having said that, I don't see the situation as dire; Uber is not to taxis what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles. Could that change? Perhaps, but one of the things I've learned in my life is that the future, even the immediate future, is as hard to predict as the flight path of the annoying fly that keeps buzzing around the room and past your ear. What I do know is that every fight against technology ends with the loss of the less advanced side, no matter how much screaming, or burning, or lawsuits submitted takes place.
The arrival of Uber in Guelph was surprising, but not unexpected. Like K-W and London, the other two cities that launched the service this past Thursday, we're a university town with a highly-educated and accomplished population that's unlikely to be frightened off by what's new and different. Earlier this year, I made the point that Guelph is ideally suited for a service like Uber thanks to a thriving entertainment district that frequently sees turf wars between drunk patrons over the few cabs that should happen to saunter down Wyndham Street. I've seen the struggle first hand, and there are times it looks like a food truck arriving in a third world village ravaged by famine.
These are the situations where in Uber will be seen as a blessing by users, administrators and observers. For police there's a more orderly exodus from downtown, for taxis there's less chaos in the streets as the struggle to pick up a hack, and for the accepted Uber drivers there's three nights a week where they can make a killing. 12,000 people in the city are trying to make their way home every Saturday night, many of those cold and/or snowy. Do the math.
Still, there is a compelling argument that can be made against Uber in terms of the institutional protections offered by taxis. Insurance being one, the central organization of a traditional, established business model being another. Safety has also been mentioned as a concern, but all Uber drivers do have to be licensed, have insurance, and have a vehicle that meets Uber standards, but many have noted that none of that stops a potential predator looking for easy prey. That's a two way street, of course, Uber drivers, after all, let strangers into their car even if all money changing hands is digital currency.
Safety is of primary concern, and another issue of concern in addressing Uber is the fact all Uber drivers are contractors, basically freelancers. By being their own boss, franchising themselves on an individual basis, Uber drivers do not have the same protections under the labour laws as taxi drivers do. The problem with companies using contract labour is a persistent one throughout the working world right now; all the benefits of actual employees with none that pesky stuff like job security or benefits. Just because it's the way of the world though doesn't make it right, but on the other hand, does that make Uber wrong? It may be a moot point now.
Ultimately, it's a matter of choice. Do you want to put yourself in the hands of Uber, or do you want to stick with the traditional taxi outlets? It's a personal decision, and unless Uber drivers are going to put big flashing U's on the side of their cars, it's going to be hard for the police or by-law enforcement or whoever to catch them all. Prohibition has never worked, because flatly outlawing something on the basis of saying, "No, you can't have it, it's not good for you," has never been very practical. It's as true in the case of Uber as it is in the case of alcohol or cigarettes, not that all those things are alike.
Toronto Mayor John Tory was correct when he shrewdly said last fall that in addressing Uber, "You sit down [with the operators] and sort these things out. But you don't sort them out from the premise that says these applications are going away, that we're going to go back to the way things were before." You can't put the genie back in the bottle, all you can do is hope for the wisdom to use your wishes smartly, and the first wish for many in Guelph, and elsewhere, is that Uber must be a service offered, and a service one can accept.