There’s a new driver in town

The ride-sharing debate may go on, but Uber has already won

LAWMAKERS ON BEACON HILL may be debating how and whether to regulate ride-sharing services such as Uber, but as far as I’m concerned the debate is over. Let’s move on. There’s a new driver in town.

With ride-sharing services, we are no longer beholden to local payphones, phonebooks, and the cadre of single-digit city cab companies. Uber has freed us from these two-dimensional bindings. The Uber effect has been profound. Gone are the days of predetermined pickup lines, prescheduled arrangements, crazy cost structures, and no-shows. Forgotten is the painstaking process of having to direct your cabbie to where you are and where you need to go – a hassle few care to remember.

For me, control has been central to this debate. The ability to exercise control over every facet of the service – from direction to payment to rating – has empowered me. I am no longer just a rider trapped in the backseat of a cab at the mercy of my driver. Nowadays, my experience is simple: I am picked up on demand and in a location of my choice by a driver who is usually polite, knows where they’re going, and does not exceed the predetermined fare estimate. For added convenience, I can even sync my music playlist.

Over the past few years, I have had multiple dealings with both Uber and traditional taxis producing outcomes that were markedly dissimilar. Here’s one example. I’m in D.C. It’s a hot Thursday afternoon. I call a cab and after about 20 minutes of standing around, I decide to call dispatch. I have to request another because, apparently, there is no record of my initial reservation. A little while later, I’m in the back of the cab, heading to my hotel in Arlington. Along the way, I find myself having to correct and direct our route as the driver seems unable to take the shortest route or has no idea where we are or how to get to my hotel. Not only does he “miss” my off-ramp – costing me a significantly higher fare than was originally discussed – but he refuses to take my credit card, forcing me to stop at an ATM on the way, again raising the fare.

Contrast that with the typical experience I had this past winter in Boston. It’s Sunday morning and freezing out, the sidewalks are piled with snow, and there is no way I’ll be able to walk the mile home with the thirty pounds of groceries I’ve just purchased in this mess. I pull out my phone, locate, price-check, and order an Uber-X. Within eight minutes, a car pulls up to my precise location. I say hello, hop in, and am on my way home. I was even helped with my groceries. Not only am I able to track the driver against my Maps app, the payment is simple, and the cost falls well within the fare estimate which, I might add, is automatically billed. It comes down to clicks – how many does it take to get to where I want to be? These experiences are not unique and have been commonplace in my travels across the country. As a consumer, I prefer to be taken care of, not taken advantage of.

These days, an important part of our commercial and cultural ecosystem is wrestling with the unmistakable realities of evolution.  When an integral service industry fails to innovate, fails to appreciate its current environment, and, most importantly, fails to recognize its customers as anything more than a dependent mob, it has forgotten its primary purpose. The status quo will not abide change and must inexorably collapse upon itself regardless of its once great strength and stature. Uber and its ride-sharing competitors have reformatted this business in the very soil of the taxi industry’s ecosystem and no matter how hard the taxi industry fights to take back what has been won, this war has been over for a while.

This is a matter of creative destruction, plain and simple. In all fairness, there is nothing new about the concept of a driver-based service. That, however, has nothing to do with the success of Uber and everything to do with the nearsightedness of taxi industry leaders, who should have seen this coming. Instead of driving the industry, however, they sat shotgun, allowing the market’s invisible hand to take the wheel.  Welcome to the gig economy. By failing to evolve, the industry has allowed itself to be destroyed. Worse than its own failures is the irrefutable fact that it has let down those dedicated workers upon whom it has been built. And because no one in the industry made any effort to lead in a forward-thinking manner, it has condemned itself and those in its employ to an uncomfortable and uncertain future.

While I earnestly embrace the innovative thrust made by Uber and its ride-sharing compatriots, I must admit that I have found elements of its business ethos to be rather aggressive. In my opinion, the company’s ruthless attitude has bordered on bombastic and even underhanded in some instances. Uber is running its expansion in a highly political fashion and, love it or hate it, this is how it’s getting things done. This backroom, strong-arm technique, coupled with a meticulously crafted message, massaged by masters of perception such as David Plouffe, demonstrates a hunger to win by any means necessary. Like it or not, this is business in the real world: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

Meet the Author

Llyr T Johansen

online communications and development strategist, MassINC
Creative destruction and sausage making are a messy business – as is winning and losing in the private marketplace. Progress can be harsh and evolution cares not for those left by the side of the road. The benefits, in my opinion, far outweigh the costs, regardless. In the end, as a colleague of mine so wryly said the other day, “I’m not sorry that I’m on #TeamUber.” My sentiments precisely – neither am I.

Llyr T. Johansen is the online communications and development strategist at MassINC.