Is it Super?

“What music would you like to listen to? Here’s the phone, you choose.” Car is clean, there’s no waiting outside in the snow, or rain, or blistering cold. We jump in for the 20 minute ride from Lake Whitmore to Ann Arbor, just a little outside of Detroit. I chose The Animals, for this post, not when I was in the car. My hockey teammates chose the music that time.

The African-American gentleman entertains us with riddles, and tells us that he had tried hockey once before, but it wasn’t for him. It was great ride from point A to point B. Just what we needed.

We have a fun night celebrating a birthday and are ready to head back home. Uber to the rescue once again. Uber, super, like a super hero.

“Please buckle your seatbelts in the back as well, because the roads are very icy”, kindly asked the Asian-American driver. It’s true, it had snowed for about two days straight, and the temperatures were certainly below the freezing point.

Whether he was motivated by his insurance, or by a genuine concern for safety, he made me feel like he was taking care of the details. And that was only the beginning. He soon also handed us his phone and asked what music we were in the mood for. The beers had kicked in at this point so we were certainly a little more creative.

So to recap we got from point A to point B, then back to point B, without waiting in uncomfortable weather, having the choice of listening to the music we wanted, were cared for with either riddles or extra safety requests, and overall paid a fair price for the service.

I love it. I love this sharing economy business. I not only think it is revolutionary, but it is environmentally friendly, making sure society uses resources wisely by minimizing waste and byproducts. Why have a car that seats five people be used by only one person? Let’s use the space that is available and fit 3, 4, 5 people. Much like car pooling, just that now we have the technology to geolocate supply and demand; therefore more easily aligning the two.

Let’s jump back a couple of months. Back when I was in Europe in December (Six Hours in Paris).

I arrive at Termini, Rome’s central train station. This should be the second or third largest access point to Italy’s capital. And together with Milan and Venice’s airports it’s probably one of the major access points in Italy.

People waiting for taxis at Termini train station in Rome, Italy, Dec 2017

So not too worried, there’s a line. What’s the big deal? In every major international airport around the world there’s always a line. Yes, there’s a demand for taxis in these places.

But where is the supply?!?! Two taxis. Why? Because about another bunch were waiting to fish for customers at the back of the parking lot. So the taxis, the supply, governed the way a customer, the demand, should act. Funny, I thought it was the other way around.

So I queue up. Already thinking about this post, and thinking of why Uber has been banned in Italy, and in most of Europe. Because I mean the cars I stepped into at the beginning of the story were clean, taken care of. Unlike the signs below, telling us, ‘the demand’, where to line up. And how is a foreigner even supposed to know the “Mura Aureliane”?

Worn out floor signs indicating where the customers should line up at Termini, Rome, Italy, Dec 2017

I’m pretty heated at this point. And then I notice the “mytaxi” sign on one of the taxis. Apparently it’s the app to make taxi reservations, pay, and all the other features that you would expect from a services app. I don’t recall it being available before Uber came in to disrupt the market, but regardless, it’s a natural progression of  businesses nowadays. All customers expect to have apps, not have to call an operator, or any of that other nonsense.

The app though is not Uber. It’s not a game-changer. The concept of Uber is as powerful as when Ford made vehicles accessible to the masses. Imagine the horse and stall owners of the era, that had paid for licenses for generations to operate their stalls. They of course were pissed! But mobility and the customer movement was stronger. We now move with cars, not horses. So why resist the change rather than embrace it and make the most of it?

The ‘mytaxi’ app advertisement on the ‘iconic’ white taxis in Rome, Italy, Dec 2017

No, I don’t want an “official” white taxi!

Decadent signs and stickers stuck on top, randomly. Rome, Dec 2017

I want an official Uber!

As I photographed my surroundings, knowing that I would discover when later researching the topic, I found these great examples of what Uber is doing. How it is shifting mobility.

  • UberAuto, in Pakistan, is geared toward rickshaw rides
  • UberEats helps with managing food delivery
  • UberBoats allows suppliers of boat tours and ferries in Istanbul to offer their services
  • Uber has partnered with Airbus to create a helicopter service in Sao Paolo, to help with the problems of traffic congestion

In Italy, it is banned due to unfair competition laws. I can’t really say what that means but let’s assume that the ‘mytaxi’ app came out after Uber, which according to the dates on their websites it would appear to be that way.

If Uber can’t compete in Italy for unfair competition why should the taxi community use an app that was more than likely created, and copied, from the Uber idea? And what about Uber purchasing 24,000 Volvos, and developing self driving cars in Pittsburgh? When will the taxi drivers, or taxi community pump that kind of money into Volvo and the scientific community?

Waiting in line for a taxi at the Termini train station, Rome, Dec 2017

I’m getting a little closer to getting a cab. I’ve waited for about 20 minutes now. This taxi driver, unlike a few before, actually cared to slow down to not splash us. And at this point the only thing that could keep me sane was my camera, my Fujifilm X100F.

I look around with tourist eyes. It’s what happens when you’ve lived abroad for a while. And this is what the ceiling to Termini’s train station looks like. Decadent, falling apart.

Termini’s ceiling, Rome, Dec 2017

Another ten minutes or so go by and it’s my turn. I hop in the taxi.

“Where to?” the taxi driver asks. I give him the address, and then he asks me what streets I want to take? I mean shit, he’s the taxi driver, why am I supposed to decide the best path? I simply answer “the fastest”. Not satisfied with my reply he then goes on to saying something along the lines of “you guys [the customers] make me laugh. You always want the fastest route. But streets are actually very subjective. If I were to ask 10 different people they would give me 10 different answers”.

At that point I was in between thinking I’m going to start a heated conversation as to why Uber should be allowed, or just sit back knowing that it was a lost cause and again, go to my trusted companion for the relief, my camera.

The latter.

Sitting in the back of the taxi, Rome, Dec 2017

Yes. I finally get to my destination. No, I didn’t get to choose my music. I had to wait 30 minutes. I could have been soaked had I been unlucky. And the directions were based on my, or the driver’s choice, not Google Maps with traffic updates.

So I question. What’s the taxi license for? What are the taxi drivers protecting so much? In this article, it explains that in 2013 two New York taxi medallions ( licenses to operate a taxi) cost a taxi driver $2.6 million. As of January 2018 they are selling for less than $200,000. The once safe investment has now dipped, significantly.

And although it is unfortunate that some taxi owners and drivers have such dire circumstances, Uber, and the likes, has not reduced the total pie. It has just shifted the distribution of it’s pieces, all the while allowing creativity from individuals to offer a unique service.

Like the riddler, or the extra-cautios drivers. Unlike the taxi driver asking me what street I wanted to take.

And in case we wanted to resist it, Uber has unofficially become a verb, much like “to Google”.

You can, and should, regulate a market. But it shouldn’t stifle creativity. Competition allows the bar to be raised. Regulations are on the other hand a minimum threshold. The former looks to reach for the stars. The latter ensures that society doesn’t fall below certain standards.

It’s a fine balance. But when I have to tell you where to go, I have to wait in less than aesthetically pleasing place for a long time, I at least could have the option of picking my own music!


Until Next Time,

A Pond Hockey Weekend