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Give Uber credit—a lot more credit—for its genius transportation revolution

uber ceo
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
“I’ll Uber it.”
  • Jean-Louis Gassée
By Jean-Louis Gassée

Editor, Monday Note

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Uber is slavery…Uber will add to traffic congestion…Uber destroys the savings of cab drivers… Hold the litany. Is this the incumbency speaking? And my name isn’t Marie Antoinette.

I might get in trouble for this, but I’d like to add a drop of customer experience into the boiling broth of opinions about Uber. No warranties expressed or implied, my perspective is a limited one.

After five decades of riding in taxis, both in my native Paris and my adopted Bay Area, I’ve had my share of interesting and sympathetic cabbies, most of whom are more than willing to share their life stories. There was the elegantly-named Pantaleon de Roudneff, a white Russian who started driving Paris cabs during World War I. Sixty years later, then in his eighties, he wove uncertainly across the lanes of Paris’ Périphérique ring boulevard as he told me about people fighting, dying, giving birth—or taking steps towards one—in the back of his cab. I offered to ghostwrite his memoirs but he wasn’t interested.

Unfortunately, pleasant rides with charming drivers are rare exceptions in a succession of dirty Silicon Valley cabs with cracked windshields, duct taped seats, and noisy wheel bearings threatening to seize at any minute. In Paris, artful cabbies need to be reminded that I’m not a visitor who needs a tour of the city. Sitting in the back, I squirm each time the cabbie plays with the zone setting on the “grinder,” as Parisians call the meter, a sentiment Woody Allen immortalized in Annie Hall: “You’re so beautiful I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter.”

Simply finding a cab can be an unpleasant, complicated experience. Try getting a ride at the wrong time of day, when it’s raining, in the wrong part of town, or for a destination that’s unlikely to provide a return fare. And there are other considerations outside of my range: I have no personal knowledge, as counsel would say, of being denied a ride because of my skin color or, more recently, the wrong headgear—but we’ve all heard the stories.

The memories must be deeply imprinted. After three years of Uber use in the Bay Area and in Paris, I still marvel at the simplicity of the experience. A few taps on your smartphone, up pops a picture of the car and the driver, you track the approach, hop in, hop out, no cash, no credit card… done. No trouble with rain, destination, or ethnicity—and my US Uber account also works in Paris, Bordeaux, or Marseilles.

The phrase “transforming experience” was first used, and then abused, in Hollywood when describing the requirements for a script. According to the orthodoxy, a movie won’t fly unless the lead goes through a transforming experience, one that indelibly stamps her life.

In moderation, the phrase applies to the way Uber has made my family’s life different. Silicon Valley argot says removing friction, a good description. In Paris, my wife Brigitte remotely sets up a ride from a close suburb to our Left Bank place for her 85-year-old mother, and then calls the driver to explain that he may need to wait for a bit at the curb while her mother comes downstairs. Brigitte follows the car’s progress and prepares her mother’s descent.

Try doing that with a Paris cab.

In San Francisco, with its expensive parking fees and fines, with traffic that’s much more painful and congested than in our leafy Palo Alto, Uber is a salvation. When we first had a place in San Francisco eleven years ago, getting a cab was such a chore that we mostly gave up. Now, we park the car for the weekend and navigate the city by foot and Uber. Some riders may object to Uber’s surge pricing, but they forget how it felt to wave desperately from the curb as cabs passed by during rush hour or after a well-attended event.

As it has for so many, Uber has become, for us, a pleasant habit, a verb: “I’ll Uber it.”

It all seems so normal that one starts to wonder why it took so long. All the ingredients required to build a 21st century cab company had long been on the shelf before Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp started Uber in 2009: GPS, smartphones, Cloud services, and the wireless internet. The taxi companies had the time, money, and access to technology to modernize—and now they rage at an interloper for “stealing” the opportunity.

Actually, this isn’t so puzzling. Cab companies live in close symbiosis with municipalities that provide protective regulation—a circumlocution to avoid the libelous mafia when describing such crusty incumbents. In France, one taxi company, Taxis G7, received government permission to operate as a result of CEO André Rousselet’s close relationship with president Mitterrand. This is the caviar left version of crony capitalism.

A key protection offered by local governments is the limit on the number of taxi licenses in a given territory. These licenses, or medallions, once sported huge price tags: In New York City, a medallion could cost more than one million dollars. Alternatively, you could lease a cab from a medallion owner and then hope to get enough rides day in, day out to make rent. How is this better than being an Uber driver, able to work part- or full-time? Or to independently switch between Uber and, say, its competitor Lyft?

Whatever the city, purchasing a medallion means a crushing amount of debt. Taxi drivers have long depended on their medallions’ resale value for their retirement…and they now see Uber severely depreciating their nest eggs.

The cabbies complain about unfair competition and have begun to protest by blocking freeways and burning tires. After a series of vigorous demonstrations, the French government announced that it would buy back taxi drivers’ plaques (as the licenses are called in my native Paris). The clever trick is that the repurchase would be financed by a tax on taxi revenues. Think about the sleight of hand for a moment: “We’ll first take your money to pay you back later.”

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is often criticized for raising huge amounts of money (more than $10 billion so far, at a $62.5 billion valuation), and for his aggressive, border-line illegal tactics. There’s a hackneyed joke floating around the Valley: Uber CEO Kalanick doesn’t brush his teeth in the morning, he files them. We ought to be grateful for his aggressive tactics: Do critics think Uber would have gotten this far by politely asking for permission to play in the municipalities-backed taxi monopolies’ sandbox?

Regarding the controversy over how Uber treats its drivers: The forums may light up with accusations of slavery, but while many Uber drivers’ circumstances are less-than-cushy, I don’t see how the life of a rent-to-drive cabbie is much better. Also, Uber has given some unemployed people a first job that they couldn’t get before. Even in countries, such as France, that have a more generous unemployment safety net, a number of young people prefer the challenge of driving for Uber to staying on unemployment rolls. I’ve ridden with some of them.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.

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