At 5 p.m. yesterday afternoon, a sudden and massive storm hit Toronto, dumping just over 100 milimeters (4 inches) of rain in a very short time. Power was lost, cars submerged, streets flooded, subways full of water. It was a mess.
At the moment we all realized Toronto had a disaster on our hands, Uber instituted surge pricing. This isn’t a new thing for them — late last year Uber charged one New Yorker $219 for a 7-mile ride. This is the same Uber famous for their 6x surge pricing on New Year’s Eve, where a short hop up Broadway can easily run you $180.
At the same time, one of their competitors — Hailo — was making sure that people stranded were getting cars, even reaching out on social media to those stuck in less then central locations and getting them rides. Their commitment to Toronto continued until late at night with weather and safety updates from their Twitter account. When I woke up this morning at 4.40, they were already back at it, advising on bus and subway closures, numbers to call for help. Their behavior was decent and admirable.
I personally took exception on Twitter last night to Uber’s behavior, called the Toronto team (and their still-silent CEO and lead investor, Travis Kalanick and Shervin Pishevar) on it, and helped make people aware who should be aware, such as tech and startup publications and people who deal with licensure of companies like Uber here in Toronto.
Once there was enough of a public outcry, Uber tried to pretend that they never kicked in surge pricing. A silly move, as I and others had already retweeted their admission that surge was in and the ensuing reactions of Torontonians. Once the worst of the storm was over, Uber returned to normal pricing. These are simply the facts, you can verify them from scrolling through my timelime last night or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
So now, friends, to today’s Startup 101 class. The subject is decency and the thesis is painfully simple:
Don’t Be An Asshole.
This is truly not a deep philosophical argument about individual freedom, nor is it about what a company can legally do given their terms of licensure. It’s about doing the right thing.
Given social media responses to my views on this issue, remarkably, I need to spell it out a bit. So here we go:
- When a really bad storm hits a city, people are stranded and very upset, and you provide transportation services to the citizens of said city, you should not dramatically raise your prices at that exact moment;
- If you do so, you are an asshole;
- If you are an asshole, you should be called out for being one.
This is pretty much the lesson. Same holds true for folks who charge $99 for a container of baby formula right after a tornado, $150 for a package of batteries after an earthquake, and so on and so forth. There may not be a law forbidding you from price-gouging, but doing so makes you an asshole.
It’s not like there aren’t examples of decency in a storm. Look to your neighbor. Last night, my neighbors came over to see if our basement was dry and whether we needed help. The neighbors of others brought food and towels and baby formula, had friends and acquaintances spend the night on their couch. They fed them and washed their clothes if they had power. That’s what decent people do in a community. What they don’t do is look to make a quick buck, as Uber did. That bites back, as I hope Uber will find out in Toronto over the coming days, with a fresh regulatory analysis of their business practices here. That’s my challenge to those who agree with the Don’t Be an Asshole Rule. Let’s ensure that having Uber in Toronto makes ongoing sense for the city and that the company is doing things right.
I’ve used Uber. Would I ever, ever, EVER use them again? No. If you read this and agree, I would hope you’d follow suit. Let’s reward those who do good things in our cities and keep a closer eye on those who don’t.