One of the benefits of living in a city like Washington, DC, is that the options abound for getting around town; the Metro, buses, rentable bikes, and so on. Public transportation is extremely affordable, but unfortunately it’s not always reliable or the fastest way to get to where I need to go. Taking a cab is usually the best alternative but can be extremely expensive, and I’ve had some bad experiences with rude or greedy cabdrivers who have tried to take advantage of me by taking an unnecessarily long route.
I tried various taxi apps that are meant to improve upon the experience by having cars come directly to your location and that allow you to store your credit card information so you don’t have to go through the payment process as you exit the cab. However, most of them were pretty underwhelming and failed to fix the other problems associated with the taxi “experience.” I kept trying new apps, hoping to find one that worked for me, but I constantly came up disappointed.
There’s a sketch from the British comedy show A Bit of Fry and Laurie where Stephen Fry plays a waiter serving a politician who is notorious for opposing the state-run television networks in favor of inferior private stations that supposedly provide the consumer with more choice. The waiter removes the politician’s utensils and replaces them with hundreds of nearly-identical coffee straws. When the man complains about the straws and how they won’t help him eat his food, Fry wryly responds that at least he now has a “choice” of his utensils. I thought of this sketch as I found myself looking through tons of different lackluster taxi apps, none of which helped me get what I wanted to go.
Ironically, the solution to my problem seemed to be a direct contradiction to the message provided by the beloved Stephen Fry. The taxicab companies, who are firmly in bed with local governments across the country, had lost the will to innovate and compete for their prospective clients, and the only real solution to this problem was a private company that often angered those very local governments. Uber had arrived on the scene, and I was excited to try it out and see what all the fuss was about.
I was amazed to find that not all taxi experiences needed to be negative and stressful. The Uber drivers I encountered were friendly, the cars were often nicer than the standard taxi cabs, and the fares were much cheaper. Even better was the fact that I could see the route we took on my phone, which ensured that I wasn’t getting ripped off. Plus, the driver’s every trip was logged, along with the identity of their passengers in case something happened to them. It truly felt as though Uber was providing a unique service.
But the nature of our economy has a way of encouraging even the most promising companies to make bad decisions in the interests of increasing profits. Drivers employed by Uber, who aren’t regulated by the government in the same strict manner that taxi drivers are, began committing horrific crimes such as sexual assault and kidnapping. These crimes likely would not have happened if Uber had properly screened their drivers to ensure that their clients were in a safe environment, and the reason for this failure is simple greed. There were so many new people trying to use Uber, and only so many approved drivers, so Uber decided that it had to meet the market demand by letting unqualified drivers work for the company.
This bad business practice of meeting increasing demand with a lower quality product or service is something we see all the time. Even our military does it, as the increasing global need for soldiers in an era of declining recruitment necessitates the lowering of standards in order to keep the institution well-staffed.
Uber executives have also recently gotten into trouble for making some pretty draconian statements about the press, none of which have helped their public image or their ability to clear regulatory hurdles being set up by various governments. All of these self-inflicted crises have led many consumers to boycott Uber and seek other transportation options.
But I have yet to do so myself, for a variety of reasons. I too am disgusted by the profit-seeking permissiveness of Uber in allowing consumers to enter an unsafe environment. I too am disgusted by the anti-democratic and dystopian comments made by Uber executives concerning journalistic freedom and best practices.
And yet I find myself with nowhere else to turn. If I were to join the Uber boycott, I would feel obligated by my sense of intellectual honesty to boycott other corporations that displayed similar bad behavior. In doing so, I would not be able to buy products from pretty much any major corporation as nearly everyone one of them commits atrocious crimes in getting their product or service to the market (think sweat shops, corporate bribery of government officials, corporate abuse of worker’s rights, corporate destruction of the environment, and so on). I would essentially have to withdraw from modern society and live a hermitic life somewhere in Montana growing my own crops and making my own clothing.
Consumers, myself included, are left to ask how we can change the behavior of major corporations in a world where the other “choices” are just as ethically compromised as the original one. This is especially true in specialized markets like transportation, where there aren’t really any small businesses to compete with the big industry leaders.
So for now, I’ve decided to stick with the one slightly improved coffee straw that is Uber. While I originally thought I’d finally found a nice silver spoon or fork, Uber’s recent actions have shown it to be merely a moderate improvement on the other choices. I do recognize that I have a certain freedom to go on using Uber because of physical traits that make me less likely to be assaulted or kidnapped (I’m a large white male). I completely empathize with those who don’t have those traits and as such cannot afford to risk their safety by using Uber or cab companies, and I’m deeply ashamed that we live in a world that prevents people from travelling in the manner they would prefer.
But I find myself with three bad options (boycott all unethical companies and move into the wilderness; boycott only Uber and be a hypocrite; continue to use Uber while acknowledging it is part of a wider corporate mentality that puts profits over people) and have made the “choice” that I think is best for me. I’m sad to say that I don’t know how to effect positive change here, and that I am too reliant upon the comforts of a modern life to live completely independently.
The truth is corporations aren’t inherently good or bad, but the more powerful and in demand they become, the more likely they are to place their interests over yours. I’d advise people to make the transportation choice that makes the most sense for them, but to be aware of the impacts of your choices on your fellow human beings.