Getting Over Uber
Susan Crawford

Hey Susan, I know I edited your column and we went over some of these arguments already, but I wanted to share some thoughts here, to kick off discussion. You raise a lot of good points about corporate responsibility, which I agree with.

But I have a big problem with defending cabs, at least as they work (or don’t) right now. They are under assault because they have done a really bad job of servicing their customers. Cabs need to evolve to stay relevant and that’s not going to happen if we simply regulate their most potent competition out of the market. Part of Uber’s success may be a result of its ability to end-run regulations that cab companies are forced to operate under. But at its core, I think Uber’s success has come because it built a better product.

I use Uber quite a bit, even though it has become fashionable to feel ashamed about it. (My 15-year-old daughter would rather take Muni.) I generally ride a bicycle around town, and Uber fills the gap when a car is needed.

I make a point of asking Uber drivers what they think of the service almost every time I use it. The answers fall between love it, and it’s OK. The ones who say they love it have a number of reasons, but top of the list is the flexibility it gives them to set their own hours, and jump in and jump out of service at will. A surprisingly large number of drivers I’ve had over the years live well outside San Francisco and come to the city at peak hours to make extra money. They would never be able to work this way at a cab company. So Uber creates new economic opportunities even as it takes others away. The jury is out on what the net effect on the labor market will be here.

No doubt many Uber drivers are on the lower economic rung, and are most vulnerable to predatory labor practices. At the same time, the cars that pull up are generally newish, and even high end (but below luxury class). These are not generally cheap cars; it seems the drivers have some financial wherewithal.

Banning Uber is extreme. If the problem is regulation, then cities should impose rational rules to level the field with the incumbents and other competitors. The right balance will come by engaging with the forces that Uber has unlocked, not attempting to put them back inside Pandora’s box.

Flywheel is an example of how cabs might become more nimble in the face of Uber and Lyft. We need more of those ideas, and they won’t come — or won’t come as quickly — if we pretend cabs are indispensable just as they are.

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