Why We Need an Uber Economy

(if we insist on using Uber). A talk with former Sierra Club president, Carl Pope

It seems as if I am the oddball, but when asked if I’m getting an Uber, I feel compelled to correct them: “I’m getting a taxi,” I say, perhaps too coldly, as if they’ve said something wrong. This often elicits a shrug and a puzzled look — whatever old man.

Living in San Francisco, it’s not been possible to avoid using Uber entirely. It’s not my jam. I’ve heard way too many horror stories from taxi drivers about their lost investment, the struggle of working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week just to put food on the table and eke out a living, and of the difficulty navigating a city awash in Uber and Lyft cars too often making their own rules. Taxi drivers feel like the City has abandoned them. From what I can tell, they’re right.

My problem with Uber

I’ve seen Uber (and Lyft, mostly Uber) drivers barrel the wrong way down one-way streets, suddenly stop in the road (presumably because something has just occurred to them, they’re lost, or they realize the address they’re looking for is two doors back), and leave mysterious bottles of yellow liquid on the curb (you can guess).

I know this makes me sound like a have it in for all Uber drivers. I don’t; unless they’re acting like jerks or leaving their pee in a bottle at the side of the road. It isn’t easy for anyone to drive around in San Francisco, let alone a car for hire, whether it be a taxi, Uber, Lyft, or whatever else.

The three times I’ve used Uber I’ve had friendly, courteous, and generally knowledgeable drivers (two-thirds of the time I’ve had to act as navigator). None of them were local. The “allure” of San Francisco brings drivers from all over the state to drop in on the City, further jam the inadequate streets (which they often don’t know anywhere near as well as a bonafide professional cabbie) in their hope of scoring a few bucks. They come in from the central valley or southern California, sleep in their cars, and leave their pee… well, you know.

Ridesharing is a great idea, but, at least in San Francisco, it’s been poorly executed. It stands to reason since just about everything born out of this town in the past 15 years or so has rolled out with little thought to the end consequences. There’s just too much money to be had for the next hot, disruptive thing. And when an issue arises at the interface between the virtual and real worlds that may hint at a need for real-world regulation, the standard fallback response is “we’re just an app,” leaving the ugly consequences to tired, lost, underpaid drivers with no place to potty and everyone else walking, driving, living, or just surviving, in the City.

Dumpster diving and income inequality
Dumpster diving in one of the richest cities on EarthPhoto by Bastian Greshake Tzovaras on Flickr

I brought up my views with Carl Pope, former CEO and Chairman of the Sierra Club and co-author of Climate of Hope with Michael Bloomberg, in a recent interview at the BNEF Mobility Summit at the Four Season in San Francisco. While he wasn’t as eager to throw Uber under the bus as I am, he has an interesting insight into the good, the bad, and the ugly of rideshare services and the gig economy in general.

As with everything else, it’s complex.

“My perception is that there are two pieces to the Uber/Lyft phenomenon,” says Pope. “One, that shouldn’t upset anyone, is the use of app-based hailing.” Indeed, for several years, I’ve used app-based hailing, the main distinction being a taxi shows up instead of an Uber or Lyft driver. Long gone are the days when I’d walk to my designated corner with ten bucks in my pocket and actually “hail a cab.”

Pope’s adds that the technology, specifically the provision of data “enables drivers to better manage things.”

The person in between

Pope’s second point ran deeper into how the gig economy often runs counter to cultural norms.

“We have [a] peculiar system in this country where we burden the employment relationship with a bunch of non-employment contingent costs,” Pope says. “I need healthcare, whether I ever world or not. I need retirement whether independently of my employer. My pension and my healthcare should not be tied to my employer.”

“But because of that system, because of the fact that [there are]minimum wage laws, but only for employees, we have nothing in between a genuine independent contractor — a plumber for instance — and an employee.”

That person “in between,” Pope argues, is your typical Uber driver. The person controlling his own work hours but is “actually part of a large institution. An institution that could provide insurance, minimum wages, and all that,” he says. “It doesn’t fit into our system.”

The consequence is a “labor market whose regulatory structure is out of date.”

My reluctance about Uber (and Lyft! I feel obligated to drag them in from time to time) never expressed itself as intelligently as Carl Pope’s, but it makes sense. In San Francisco, Uber is only one such example of the duller edge of disruption. It doesn’t always cut cleanly.

Taxis waiting for a fare
Taxis waiting for a farePhoto by Hans Vivek on Unsplash

So, for now, my taxi-driving friends and I will rue the day Uber came to town (with apologies to my Uber-driving friends). With that said, I know “Uber” today is what “taxi” was 10 years ago. I know some of my reluctance is my own weird personal hangup, but certainly not all of it.

Ridesharing is a great idea. Anything that might get people, especially in urban areas, to divorce themselves of the idea they must have a car is a good thing. But great ideas can be poorly conceived, managed, and administered. As with Uber, being founded by a jerk doesn’t help.

I think Carl Pope is right. One the one hand, everyone’s perfectly happy to pull out their phones and “get an Uber,” but our efforts to adopt labor markets to the disruption we’ve come to love just plays at the edges.

We are high-tech and out-of-date at the same time and the widening disparity between the two demand a wholesale transformation of our assumptions and expectations of work and labor in the 21st century.

This article originally published in Medium

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