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 ride-sharing service.
The tweet of the private conversation, captured on Oct. 29 when the National Hockey League 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 behaviour and flagrantly disregarded how his actions might harm others?
That’s the way, as I’ve been arguing for several years, the company rolls. It happens every time an Uber poaches a fare.
Leaving Ottawa’s Via Rail station recently, for example, I watched a fancy-schmancy black sedan stop in a crosswalk 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.
I am, as the saying goes, “world famous in Winnipeg” for my objection to Uber. Those who know me know that 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’re only a symptom, not a cause, of our social architecture shattering into micro-particles.
Uber began as a putative market solution to perceived problems created by state-mandated monopolies in the taxi industry. Alas, it turns out nirvana’s arrival has been delayed indefinitely. Even the libertarian-tilting Economist magazine reports that the promises of the much-ballyhooed ‘sharing economy’ aren’t meeting expectations.
The publication quotes American traffic consultant Bruce Schaller as saying he “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 research by 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 a monopoly business practice is worth a little extra greenhouse gas and a 3.5 per cent bump in the fatality rate, isn’t it?
Not if you’re one of the hundreds of largely immigrant cabbies in New York City who’ve been sent spiralling down what the New York Times calls the “devolution into poverty.”
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 lawsuit, the value of city-mandated taxi plates has dropped to $30,000 from about $400,000 only five years ago.
Legal issues aside, this is about much more. We all bear responsibility to the degree that we’ve 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.
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 Senators game for the players still hanging their heads in shame from the über lesson they’ve learned.
Peter Stockland is senior writer with the think-tank Cardus and publisher of Convivium.ca.