I took my first Uber ride last weekend and am now an Uber convert.
My conversion started with the ease with which I installed the Uber app and signed up for the service on my phone while on a bus ride home from Toronto. It continued when the app opened a Google map showing nearby Uber cars, in real time, that looked like a cross between the morning traffic report and Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map. Next was how easy it was to request a driver and the app giving me his picture, car model/make and license plate to find him outside the bus station. The fact he turned up less than five minutes after I requested a lift was great but that was topped by him telling me my trip was free because I was a first time user.
At the end of the trip he asked me to rate him using the app and told me he would do the same for me. He said if they get three bad ratings Uber kicks them out. In response to my comment about security concerns with Uber, he said that all potential drivers in Canada had to pass a global RCMP, criminal record check. This is backed up by Uber’s site that says their safety system in the US “includes a three-step criminal background screening for the U.S. — with county, federal and multi-state checks that go back as far as the law allows — and ongoing reviews of drivers’ motor vehicle records throughout their time on Uber.”
And that’s just what I liked about my trip.
I admit being biased towards Uber because it’s a disrupter. It’s disrupting the established taxi industry that has needed a shake up for a long time. Uber disrupts the model that has taxi monopolies charging drivers large up front licensing, and monthly, fees regardless of how much money they make (the last cabbie I asked paid the company $800/month). Uber’s barrier to entry is much lower. Uber drivers are self-employed and pay Uber a 20% commission on what they make. (At least this is what I found out from Google. I couldn’t find this info on Uber’s site and got no answer from the normally speedy replying Ottawa Community Manager when I asked).
Uber also has one, very good goal that gets little media attention: being an alternative to owning a car at all. In a June 2014 CNBC article, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said, “If you can make the economics work so that it’s actually more economical to push a button and get a ride than it is to own a car, then a lot of people are going to do it.” Lastly, Uber is also having another good, probably unintentional, impact. A study co-commissioned by the US branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Uber credited the ride dispatching app with helping reduce impaired driving in that country.
With all that goodness, what’s wrong with Uber? Not their marketing. That’s for sure.
When I opened my phone after my ride, I had an email from Uber’s Ottawa Community Manager congratulating me on my first Uber ride and adding:
We’d love for you to help us spread the word about Uber! Below is your custom Uber invite code. Each friend that signs up with your code will receive CA$20 off their first Uber ride. For each person you refer that takes a ride, we’ll add CA$20 in Uber credit to your account. It’s the ultimate Uber win-win, and there’s no limit to how much credit you can earn.
I had already been singing Uber’s praises on Facebook before I got this note so sharing it was a no brainer. What was interesting was the response I got when I did.
One commenter said she didn’t use Uber because, unlike many taxi drivers, Uber drivers aren’t unionized. She said many taxi drivers are racialized immigrants and the union helps protects them. This got me thinking… I said she had a point and shared that my Uber guy was a brown-skinned accountant making extra cash on the side as a self-employed Uber driver. As for taxi drivers being unionized, that seems necessary as 100% of the ones I’ve spoken with don’t have good things to say about the near monopolies they work for. Uber is 5 years old and worth $18.2 billion and I haven’t heard anything about the company abusing the power it has over its self-employed drivers. In fact, when the company cuts fares in January, it guaranteed it wouldn’t affect driver’s salaries. The company has been accused of questionable tactics in its fight against competitor, Lyft, but that’s more of a capitalism problem than an Uber problem.
The one issue I do have is the confusingly named “Request uberX” button” used to request a ride. After checking Uber’s website I found out that UberX is used to request a regular car while UberBlack gets you a professional chauffeur.
Uber and other disrupters are here to stay so the only real question is: are you coming along for the ride?
[Update: March 7, 2015. For a great Uber critique, see Irene Jansen’s post “Uber Xploitation?“]