To hear Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick tell it, there was one fatal mistake that shifted the destiny of transportation, making the U.S. and then the world too dependent on the automobile.
"There's just one hitch. It's called regulation," he told the audience at the TED conference in Vancouver Tuesday.
Kalanick was telling the story of the jitney "ride sharing" service that exploded in Los Angeles and elsewhere 100 years ago. As the story goes, a car salesman, fed up with long trolley bus lines, started offering strangers rides for a jitney, which was slang for a nickel.
Within a year, jitneys in L.A. were carrying 150,000 rides per day, said Kalanick.
"To give you some perspective, Uber in Los Angeles is doing 157,000 rides per day today, one hundred years later."
But the "jitney juggernaut" died; squashed — in Kalanick's view — by the trolley bus lobby pushing for regulation to control its monopoly. (In other tellings of this story, the regulation was needed for liability and safety issues.)
The result, Kalanick said, was widespread automobile ownership, parking lots across the land, and seven billion hours wasted each year in the U.S., stuck in traffic.
"There was an Uber way before Uber. If it had survived the future of transportation would probably already be here."
A new push for Vancouver?
What Kalanick didn't mention to the TED audience — and he declined media interviews at the conference — was Uber's plans to tackle regulations in Canada, especially in Vancouver, the one city where the ride-hailing app tried to set up shop in 2012, but closed.
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The B.C. government has recently changed its tune on Uber, saying it and similar services are "inevitable," but will have to operate within existing regulations. Last month, Edmonton became the first Canadian city to make Uber legal.
Kalanick did use his TED trip to gather support in friendly circles, including a meetup Monday night for entrepreneurs at Launch Academy in Gastown, appearing on stage with former Surrey city councillor Barinder Rasode.
"Old rules need to bend," he reportedly told the group, making the pitch that Uber could create jobs and help cut traffic and pollution.
Evil genius or heroic reformer?
Even at tech-friendy TED, curator Chris Anderson didn't ignore Uber's controversy, not just in terms of protests from taxi drivers, but accusations the company's fiercely competitive stance has verged on bullying of cities and critics.
"Is he a frightening competitor? Evil genius? Heroic reformer?" Anderson asked, introducing Kalanick.
Kalanick didn't apologize for anything, but did say it's been hard to "cement ... cultural values" in a company growing rapidly from 400 some two and a half years ago to 6500 people today.
"I think we learned a lot of lessons, but I think at the end of it, we came out stronger. But it was certainly a difficult period."