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  • Thomas Thurston

Uber, taxis and faces of change

Updated: Apr 3

Last week I hopped into a cab at SFO and headed downtown. I told the driver my hotel’s name and street, then he nodded and we were on our way (no GPS necessary). The driver mentioned he’d been driving taxis in San Francisco for 37 years. When I asked if he’d ever considered driving for Uber, he said “no, I’d never do a deal with the devil.”

We all know that even the most well-established, incumbent businesses can be suddenly undone by upstarts. Netflix pulled the carpet out from Blockbuster. Amazon uprooted hundreds of bookstores. Smartphone apps are eating away at traditional cameras, flashlights, compasses, GPS devices, guitar tuners, pedometers and countless other things.

A changing-of-the-guards can be tragic in the micro (sad for old businesses), but possibly okay at the macro (good for new businesses, good for consumers). Still, this taxi ride was all about the visceral micro-scale. My driver had spent 15 years on a waiting list just to get his official cab number. He had a day-shift that started and stopped at times decided by his company, not himself. He had to pay hundreds per month in special insurance. He had to wait in an unseen lot for what could be hours, just to pick up fares at the airport. He had an in-car video camera for security. He had a bunch of rules and regulations to follow. There were three signs in the cab explaining my passenger rights, with phone numbers to call if my driver stepped even slightly out of line. At the hotel, before swiping my card he asked what tip I wanted to give. It was a tad awkward, and for the sake of easy mental math I gave him 20%.

My driver said Uber was an illegal operation run by a bunch of crooks. He said the Mayor of San Francisco was corrupt and had abused his power in office by deliberately withholding new taxi registrations while simultaneously investing in Lyft to make a personal fortune. I’m not saying any of this is true of false, just that my driver left no ambiguity about his opinion on the matter. When I told him Uber had just entered the Portland market, he shook his head with a look of defeat.

He said it was unfair how anyone could sign up to be an Uber driver. In his words, “even a serial killer can just start picking people up… all he has to do is get a black car.” No waiting list 15-years-long. He hated that Uber drivers started and stopped their shifts whenever they wanted, which saturated the market with amateurs at peak times without making them endure the dreadful downtimes of a traditional cabbie. He said they didn’t have his insurance burdens, and that they were illegally picking up and dropping people off at the airport willy-nilly. After 37 years of diligently following all the rules, now he was losing ground to a horde of unregulated opportunists. It wasn’t fair.

I tried to see the world through his eyes. He’d moved to the US from Turkey as a child. He was driving a taxi in San Francisco when its Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk were assassinated. He’d endured the 1979 oil crisis, which was stressful for taxi drivers. His business survived the construction of BART. He’d picked up people all over the city during the Zebra Killings, Zodiac Murders and Golden Dragon massacre. He’d seen a huge rise in the city’s homeless population, the big San Francisco earthquake, the dot-com boom and bust. Now, having navigated it all, he was being undone by an app.

The Uber driver was from Tunisia, with degrees in literature and engineering. Mostly, he was proud of his son, a software programmer who was getting an undergrad degree at Stanford. He’d given his son a book on how to write Python code for his 10th birthday. A couple years later his son had also taught himself how to write Java. After getting an “almost 100%” scholarship to Stanford his son was already turning down job offers because he wanted to finish school and didn’t want to work for anyone else (preferring to discover his own startup dreams instead).

At the airport he dropped me off right outside my gate. I stepped out of the car (without having to take out my wallet or estimate a tip), wished the driver well, and quietly caught my flight.


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