There were violent demonstrations in Paris and other French cities on Thursday, as taxi drivers took to the streets to protest the UberPOP ride service. The French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is on their side, claiming UberPOP drivers are not paying taxes and " are in effect working in the black market."
The battle in the streets of Paris has inconvenienced many, including Courtney Love. However, what's happening in France is just a more graphic demonstration of a problem that happens everywhere Uber pops up -- a struggle between the existing regulated taxi infrastructure and the unregulated Uber system of ... what? What is Uber anyway?
Uber claims that it is not a taxi service, but a technology platform. A spokesperson explained to a Canadian newspaper:
Uber is to the taxi business what Expedia is to companies like Air Canada [or any airline]. We provide city residents with a convenient and efficient technological platform to request transportation services from local transportation providers.
That's why we're covering this on MNN in an ongoing series about how technology is affecting our lives. But is that description of Uber accurate?
People love Uber because frankly, regulated taxis often are awful, with dirty cars and rude drivers. They can be hard to find when you need them most because fares are fixed, so why drive when the driving is tough and slow? You have to flag them down or actually phone them — in an era where people don't talk on phones and they certainly don't listen to that "your call is important to us" hold message.
An Uber car, on the other hand, can be ordered on your smartphone. You can see where it is and how long it will take to get you. You can rate the driver and the car, so they tend to be cleaner and the drivers more polite. And who doesn't object to government interference and over-regulation?
He nails it. (Photo: Alastair Somerville/Twitter)
In Salon, Richard Eskow notes that there are sometimes good reason to regulate things like transportation.
Regulations were created because they serve a social purpose, ensuring the free and fair exchange of services and resources among all segments of society. Some services, such as transportation, are of such importance that the public has a vested interest in ensuring they will be readily available at reasonably affordable prices. That’s not unreasonable for taxi services, especially given the fact that they profit from publicly maintained roads and bridges.
But Uber doesn't serve all segments of society. For example, the elderly, who are big customers of taxis, usually don't do smartphone apps. Uber also presents itself as part of the "sharing economy." Eskow doesn't think much of this either.
A “sharing economy,” by definition, is lateral in structure. It is a peer-to-peer economy. But Uber, as its name suggests, is hierarchical in structure. It monitors and controls its drivers, demanding that they purchase services from it while guiding their movements and determining their level of earnings. And its pricing mechanisms impose unpredictable costs on its customers, extracting greater amounts whenever the data suggests customers can be compelled to pay them. This is a top-down economy, not a “shared” one.
The actual technology platform that Uber is built on is not rocket science. The company has succeeded because it has scale, money and lawyers. It continues to be under attack in the courts, which will determine whether drivers are contractors or employees, and whether it is even legal at all in cities where taxi services are regulated. In the meantime, the taxi companies are stepping up their game, cleaning up their cars and developing apps of their own.
Many find Uber to be a wonderful service, so good that some are giving up their private cars and using it instead. But let's not call it a technology platform or part of the sharing economy -- it is really neither.
Like they say about ducks, if it looks like a taxi and acts like a taxi, it's a taxi.
Related in MNN and TreeHugger:
- The rise of the sharing economy
- How the sharing economy has worked for me
- What exactly is the 'sharing economy' now? Sometimes it smells like something else