On-demand ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are on the rise, allowing smartphone users to request cab drivers with the touch of a button. But though the services are popular with consumers and drivers alike, they’re finding less favor among their taxi-company competitors and the unions and government bureaucrats who protect them.
Calling for increased regulation, entrance fees, and insurance requirements, competitors are grappling to retain their privileged, insulated status. In Miami-Dade County, an area with particularly onerous restrictions and regulations, Diego Feliciano, president of the South Florida Taxicab Association, argues that the change is bound to “ruin the very thing it’s trying to improve,” all because it threatens the fat cats who pay his salary, and who can afford to jump through the regulatory hoops. “When looking at new technologies,” he writes, “we must also be sure people’s basic civil rights and the safety of the riding public are protected.”
Bringing these petty municipal battles into the limelight, actor Ashton Kutcher, an early investor in Uber, recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, decrying “antiquated legislation,” “old-school monopolies,” and “old-school governments” who continue to stand in the way of innovation and consumer demand. In areas like Miami, Kutcher says, there is a “Mafioso mentality” against letting the “new guys” in.
Indeed, as Miami’s Feliciano aptly demonstrates, the protectionist mindset only sees what is, viewing economic activity in static and self-centered terms, and failing to recognize or value the type of opportunity and possibility that comes with increased freedom and ownership. Feliciano claims that he’s interested in “safety” and “basic civil rights,” but the only folks being protected are those with power and pocketbooks.
Though services like Uber have delivered convenience and cost savings, it’s attitudes like this that make the element of freedom itself ever more noteworthy. Take the following story from the Denver Business Journal, which highlights one driver’s journey from minion to manager (HT):
San Francisco’s taxi and limo companies also have lost a third of their drivers since the arrival of ride-sharing apps, according to research by Forbes magazine. Many are presumed to have gone into business for themselves, using their own cars with Lyft or Uber apps becoming their dispatching service and payment processor.
Ali Vazir, a Denver UberX driver, quit being a cabbie after nearly six years plying streets in Denver for Yellow Cab and Metro. What drew him to UberX was the chance to drop the weekly cab lease payments he made to the cab company, which amounted to $22,000 to $32,000 annually. After other expenses, Vazir said, there were times it was a struggle to make the equivalent of minimum wage.
He, like other UberX drivers, isn’t an Uber employee. Technically, he licenses Uber’s dispatching and payment software, has to insure himself and his car, and bear vehicle maintenance costs personally. But, Vazir says, his cut of UberX fares brings home more money, his schedule is more flexible, and he drives a newer car, he said.
“I feel emancipated. I’m so much happier, and my passengers are happier, too,” Vazir said. (emphasis added)
This is not the only industry where globalization and interconnectedness have, quite paradoxically, brought services closer to consumers, tightening the grid of human relation and interaction, freeing up producers and creatives along the way. Unfortunately, it’s also not the only industry where business interests and political insulators continue to collaborate and conspire to resist and interrupt such trends.
For the cab companies and the cronies who protect them, it’s not about service but self-preservation, despite their claims to the contrary. And though the drivers and riders at the bottom are surely finding new conveniences and cost savings, Vazir offers a good reminder that, at a more fundamental level, such mundane matters begin with liberation.