Here in my home state of Connecticut, the legislature in Hartford has been trying to figure out how to regulate the mavericks on the block, Uber and Lyft, without driving traditional cab companies out of business. A recent piece in the CT Mirror characterized Uber and Lyft as “market-disrupting.” I’m sure journalists and legislators who were lined up with the buggywhip manufacturers said something similar as the first Model T’s rolled off the Ford assembly line. Uber and Lyft have/are/will continue to disrupt the traditional taxi cab market, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But since they have entered the car-hiring marketplace, it’s only faith that Uber and Lyft play by the rules.
I know. The concept of government regulation gives some people fits. And there are reasons for that reaction. But it appears to me that in terms of regulating Uber and Lyft, the lawmakers in Hartford have been pretty tame — at least in the House. The Senate still has to pass the bill.
The Mirror describes Uber and Lyft as “a technology and business model not addressed in any current regulatory framework.” Sounds right on the money to me. For anyone who has ever used a cab, these guys are freewheeling and innovative. (The Mirror uses the term “swashbuckling.”) So here is what the Hartford regulations require: Uber and Lyft will pay annual registration fees, they will carry up to $1 million insurance for passengers, and would-be drivers must pass background checks into their driving records and any criminal history. If you have had three moving violations in the last three years or a DUI on your record, you’re not gonna drive for Uber or Lyft. The same goes for anyone convicted of fraud or listed on the sex-offender registry. The bill passed Connecticut’s House of Representatives by a vote of 103 to 39.
If you have ever flagged down a cab in a big city, you know that the condition of the interior, the size of the vehicle, even little comforts such as legroom varies from cab to cab. Much more troublesome is trying to flag down a cab when it’s raining. Or snowing. Or during rush hour. Or on a major holiday.
If you live outside a major city, the cab situation can be especially frustrating. For example, there is no cab company in my small town. After I totaled my car, I still needed to get around, so I called the cab companies in the neighboring city. My experiences were hit or miss. Dispatchers always promised a car in 20 minutes. I have waited up to 90 minutes. A ride to a destination 1.5 miles away costs $20. Tip not included. Often the interior of the cab was tired and sometimes grimy. One driver’s car always reeked of whatever fast food he had had for lunch. And there was one driver, a bit rough around the edges, who asked me one day, “You seem like a nice guy. Were you ever a d**k?”
I switched to Uber.
If you’re not familiar with Uber, you download the app to your phone, connect your Uber account to your credit or debit card, key in your home address, and you are ready to make your first reservation.
Whenever I need a ride, I tap on the app, type in my destination, and in a few seconds Uber gets me a driver who uses his/her GPS to find me. Immediately, I get a message that tells me the driver’s name, the type of car, the license plate number, and how long it will take before the car arrives. The longest I have had to wait was 11 minutes. And none of the drivers have ever been late.
They use their own cars, which are newish (no rusty 1999 Honda Accord with a tape deck). The vehicle is immaculate inside and out. Every driver I’ve met has been polite and friendly. And the price of a ride can’t be beat. For that $20 trip I mentioned earlier, Uber charges me seven bucks and change.
I don’t see how traditional cab companies can compete. I hope I am not heartless, but if some bright young thing comes up with a better idea, it will be hard on the outdated technology. Remember correcting typewriters? What ever happened to them after the advent of desktop computers?
I have been unable to nail down how much the drivers are making. Some have told me they get about 75 percent of each fare. One driver complained that he got only 50 percent.
And I haven’t met a driver who works for Uber full time. I’ve met college students, single moms picking up a few extra bucks on the weekend, retired gentlemen, and professional limo drivers who “Uber” on the side.
Initially I believed that the tip for the driver was included in the fare. I was wrong, so I now I tip. More often than not, the driver has said to me, “Oh, you don’t have to do that!”
Recently a friend and I sat down and figured out what it would cost me to replace my defunct car — purchase price, registration, insurance, gas, maintenance — as compared to once or twice a week rides with Uber. After looking at the numbers, there is a good chance I may never buy another automobile.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life, in which he includes the story of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of cab drivers.
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