To go behind the scenes of the battle between Uber and Taxi drivers, the Walrus's editor Jonathan Kay went to taxi school and hit the streets as an Uber driver. He tells us what those experience taught him about the future of the taxi industry.
Here's an edited and abridged transcript of CBC's Conrad Collaco with Kay. Kay has written the cover article for the September issue of the Walrus. It's called "Uber v. Taxi."
Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief, The Walrus magazine
Q: How much money did you make while driving for Uber?
I don't want to overstate the length of my Uber career. I probably did about a couple weeks of it on and off. My wife was strangely nervous about me doing it. She seemed to think it was a very risky thing. It's not. It was interesting being on the other side of the Uber transaction. It gave me a good perspective on things.
Q: What was it like having strangers in your car and having conversations with people you don't know?
If you look at the memoirs of cab drivers one thing they always say is you have to be a people person. You have to love talking to people. I'm sure that was true maybe five years ago. Most of the people I picked up were young people and they were so obsessed with their smart phones. In many cases we didn't exchange a word.
When you are using Uber all the transaction details including the destination are pre-programmed using your smart phone app. There is no requirement for oral communication. With a cab driver you have to say where you're going. Often they would get in my car on a phone call, use Twitter and then get out of my car often on the same phone call. They barely acknowledged my presence.
One time a couple got in. They were in a heated argument. They dropped so many F-bombs in my back seat. I actually gave them two out of five stars on the Uber rating app. That's one of the most fun things about Uber and how they enforce quality control.
Q: Were you ever worried about your safety while driving with Uber?
No. Toronto is a safe city. Canada is a safe place. If I was doing this in Rio De Janeiro that would be another story. We're lucky to live in an extremely safe country like Canada. I was never worried.
Q: Can Uber and taxis coexist?
I think a lot of city councillors would like to pretend that so they don't have to make a decision. I don't think it will work like that because Uber is systematically siphoning off the most profitable elements of the taxi trade — that is young people going out on weekends to movies and out on dates.
That's where drivers make a ton of money. Uber is taking that. Taxis are being left with older people, people with special needs, people who require wheelchair access and the visually impaired. Those are the people who require special training and vehicles that taxi fleets can provide but that's not a particularly profitable part of the trade. Those trips take a lot of time and effort and passenger care. There's not enough money on the table left for the taxi drivers to make a living.
Q: If Uber fails, how will the taxi industry be changed?
I think even people in the industry will acknowledge that since they have had a monopoly since the 19th century they have gotten complacent and customer service has suffered. I'm sure all of your listeners have stories of bad cab rides. The Uber threat has been a wake-up call.
In Toronto, Beck Taxi has developed their own smart phone app that duplicates a lot of the features of the Uber app. You do see evidence that the taxi industry does understand the reason people are flocking to Uber has to do with the response times, the hygiene and the sometimes bad manners of cab drivers. If Uber is legislated away in Hamilton and Toronto I do think you will see better service from the traditional legacy taxi fleet.