Uber versus tuk-tuk

Prologue: Dawn in Montpellier

It was dark when we left our apartment at five in the morning, a Wednesday in mid-July, this time of year already warm even in the early morning. Daysacks over our shoulders, we walked our rolling luggage across the white tile of the nearly deserted Place Comedie to the taxi stand by the Opera House. Annie had arranged for a private taxi to take us to the airport – we were departing too early to take the shuttle bus. A long day ahead: Montpellier to Paris to Shanghai to Chiang Mai. Our driver was waiting, and the first leg of our trip began in a new BMW, a collection of leather and engineering whose price I reckoned could support our family for two or three years. A car is nothing more than a glorified appliance, yet the moment I sat down in this BMW, it felt like more than a toaster or vacuum cleaner. If it had to be an appliance, then this was like one of those expensive Swiss espresso machines – you just know that the coffee will be perfect: black and strong without being bitter. But really, the experience was closer to the time a blizzard closed the west bound highway to eastern British Columbia, and because all the other, cheaper hotels were already full, we stayed at the Post Hotel in Lake Louise. The Post Hotel is one of those Relai$ and Chateaux ($wiss owned) places: every a$pect of the experience, from the linen$ to the haute cui$ine to the Groth on the wine li$t to cigar room where you u$e cedar chip$ to light the Cuban cigar$ – it all makes you realize it would be pretty nice to be rich.

Certainly there were worse ways to start a vacation than in a new, high end BMW.

What’s in a name?

When I first heard there was a company named Uber, my initial thought was what a bad name. Uber is obviously German, and the way my mind works was the first thing I thought of was Deutschland über Alles (Germany above all or Germany over everything), a refrain from old version of the German national anthem, that might have had nationalist, fascist, and even Nazi undertones. I also wondered if the Uber company used an umlaut in their spelling, making the name Über. They don’t.

It’s not that I dislike Germans or Germany, quite the opposite: I studied German at the university, lived in Germany for a year, and over the years have been madly in love with one or two of them (not at the same time).

Still, a sense of history or at least vocabulary can be important. I remember at one software company a vice-president in business development wanted to name a user acquisition program Rolling Thunder, also the name of a United States Air Force bombing campaign against North Vietnam in the mid-1960’s. It seemed a bit like naming something project Nagasaki. I believe another name was chosen for the project.

Maybe a year later, the next time I heard about Uber was news of Parisian taxi drivers protesting Uber moving into that taxi market. I’m generally not sympathetic to French workers striking – they have it pretty good, but the French still find reasons to protest and act ill-tempered. But a bit of research revealed that in this case the taxi drivers were in the right – Uber was running an illegal taxi service and had deceived French regulators about its practices.

As soon became clear, Uber has never felt the rules applied to them. Among other offenses the company had1The main source for this list was an ...continue:

  • Booked thousands of fake rides on competitor Lyft
  • Attempted to discredit a journalists who wrote negatively about Uber
  • Mislead drivers about how much money could be earned as drivers. The Federal Trade Commission fined2On the lawsuit about the status of ...continue Uber $20 million after finding that drivers earn much less than Uber claimed.
  • Attempted to avoid regulation using an internal tool known as Greyball.
  • Underpaid drivers in New York City
  • Faced lawsuits pertaining to the classification of drivers as contractors rather than employees.
  • Rather than comply with Austin’s regulation of all driving services, nothing that seems to be unreasonable, Uber (and Lyft) withdrew from the Austin market 3Concerning Uber’s resistance to ...continue

There’s more. In February, 2017, former Uber engineer named Susan Fowler wrote a blog post about being asked for sex by her boss on her first day on the job.4Well written and amazing, see Susan ...continue That event alone is stunning, not the least of which the pervert was stupid enough to ask her over instant messaging, but her story of corporate denial and stonewalling simply could not be made up, and if I had to make up a creepy boss, an unhelpful Human Resources department, and a dysfunctional company, I’d start with Fowler’s story. In June, 2017, an Uber executive got the medical records of a woman raped by an Uber driver. Why? Supposedly to discredit the woman. More recently there was a reported data breach that Uber did not disclose, affecting 57 million users and drivers. Finally, it seemed appropriate that Saudi Arabia, paragon of women’s rights and a model of progress, invested more than $3.5 billion in the company.

Uber is a remarkable concentration of arrogance and unethical behavior. It’s nothing new.

One last thing: Uber’s mobile app and service are pretty damn good.

Uber in Asia

I took my first Uber ride was on 15 July. For our first three days in Chiang Mai we got around on tuk-tuks, but one day, because our hotel was away from the downtown of Chiang Mai, and there were no tuk-tuks or taxi’s around, the hotel owner’s advised us to try Uber. Annie had the app on her phone, and I watched over her shoulder as she put in the request for a car. The app layout was clean and well done, relatively easy to use, and generally accurate with regard to both the maps and car location.

A few minutes later a new-ish white Toyota Camry looking car pulled up (it’s noteworthy that all Uber cars we drove in for the rest of the trip were always new or very late model). Our driver was an orange haired young woman wearing a surgical mask. Other than a sawadee when we got in and got out, there was no conversation. The driver used a GPS, which she consulted often, to get us to our destination, drove relatively slowly and carefully, and we got there just fine.

This experience would be the same for the rest of the time we used Uber, which was mostly in Thailand and Viet-Nam: an early twenties driver, new car (could someone that young afford that new car?), when driving closely following the guidance of the GPS. A few days after our first Uber ride, we hired a tuk-tuk driver, Nuc who also had a car available for hire. We hired him for three days. Nuc said that sometimes he worked as an Uber driver, although at that time he was not using Uber, and was mostly working using his tuk-tuk We noticed that he also had two carried two mobile phones, and he said that one phone was for Uber, the other for Grab, a Malaysian based competitor to Uber.

For the rest of our trip, until Viet-Nam where tuk-tuks are banned, we took either an tuk-tuk, traditional cab, or an Uber. In Laos our stays were either in a remote village on the Mekong River (Pakbeng) or else our hotel was near everything (Luang Prabang). In Cambodia we used a tuk-tuk once (Siam Reap) and a taxi once (Phnom Penh).

Late one afternoon in August we traveled by bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon. It was getting dark when we arrived at the bus depot in downtown Saigon.5I could never live this close to the ...continue There were taxis waiting, and we found an eager, helpful driver, who worked for a taxi company driving white cabs with green trim. But first I needed cash, and the driver pointed to an ATM half a block away. Unlike Europe, a new country meant a new currency, and we were now on our fourth: first baht (Thailand), then kip (Laos), then riel (Cambodia), and now dong (₫). The problem at that a particular moment was how much to withdraw: my options were ₫500,000, ₫1,000,000, or ₫5,000,000. I had no idea what this came to in real money, so I chose the smallest amount.

Once in the cab and on our way, it became clear that our driver was a sort of manic depressive (on the upswing at that particular moment, not unlike Baby Face Nelson in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”), laughing a lot, eager to teach us a few phrases in Vietnamese, overall a bit too effervescent. But the drive was interesting: everywhere there were signs of building and construction, and the city seemed far nicer than Bangkok.

We had a bit of trouble finding the address of our friends’ home, going to a similar, but incorrect address before finding the right place. Finally we got to our friend’s house, and as I got out to unload our bags, I noticed the taxi meter read something like 487,0. I wasn’t sure if the Vietnamese, like the French, use the period to delimit thousands, but either way, if the amount was ₫487 or ₫4,870, it was way under what I had in cash. Or so I thought.

As we got our bags out of the trunk, our friend Barbara came out to greet us. Amid the hellos and hugs I pulled out money to pay the driver, he was now standing close to me, and at the same time asked Barbara about the fare display, and she said the taxi meters cut off the last two trailing digits. She asked what the fare was, and as I handed him some money, I told her the amount must be about ₫487,000. She was surprised at how high the fare was, and began speaking to the driver. I stepped away to help Annie with the bags – the conversation was in Vietnamese, and it was useless to stand there. Yet at that moment a mental switch was flipped and our taxi driver took a deep dive into his own private hell. Yelling at Barbara, he quickly got in his cab and drove away. She turned to me and said we had just paid about four times as much as the ride should have cost.

The total amount for the fare came to roughly $22.

We took Uber for the rest of our stay in Saigon. It wasn’t about the money.

Other perspectives

In his October, 2017 article about his experiences working as an Uber driver in London, James Bloodworth recounts many of the same problems about Uber and its practices, especially about the actual versus promised wages for drivers. But he also notes that in some ways Uber is an improvement upon London’s traditional cabs:

Many of my fellow Uber drivers had previously had a torrid time working for traditional minicab firms. All but one of those I met were first-generation migrants to the UK, and most had—initially, at least—seen Uber as a welcome opportunity. Some had indeed joined Uber precisely to escape traditional minicab companies’ penurious rates of pay and tyrannical human controllers, who assign rides to drivers and are often notorious for their favoritism. If nothing else, Uber’s algorithm was not going to prevent you from earning enough to eat because it didn’t like your face.6See ...continue

Bloodworth describes the difficulties faced by immigrant drivers in London’s pre-Uber taxi world, and more broadly, how the London regulators at times succumbed to special interest pressure wishing to preserve the status quo: the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, which represents 11,000 members of the city’s black cab drivers. Another driver is quoted as saying the taxi industry was already corrupt before Uber arrived:

As James Farrar, head of the private-hire drivers’ branch of the IWGB union, told me when I spoke to him a few months ago, “This was a rotten trade before Uber ever came along and we mustn’t lose sight of that.… We need to clean up the whole trade.” With its innovative app and greater capacity to invest, Uber is simply better at doing what many traditional firms did. And by taking human controllers out of the game, Uber has arguably created more equality of opportunity among drivers.

That said, in November ruling Farrar won a case against Uber regarding his right to minimum wages and holiday pay.7See ...continue

Uber was also in Austin, but left when the city council voted to make Uber drivers follow the same rules as taxi drivers, and this was confirmed in a voter referendum. In an email exchange with someone who lives in Austin, he wrote:

I’ve have several friends who drive for Uber/Lyft. They are what you would call below middle class. They don’t come from jobs that have benefits or above average wages. They would love to have benefits, but they are so thankful that they can make good money just because they have a car. The per trip pay is not that good, but they can decide to work more if they want more, or less if not. They will complain about several Uber business practices, sure. But when Austin kicked Uber out, they were devastated. If you told them Austin did it “for their benefit”, it would have fallen on deaf ears

Austin kicked out Uber because the company was not willing to play by the same rules as everyone else, reasonable rules meant to protect consumers. And I questions the ‘good pay.’ But his main point is true: a bad job is better than no job.

Where does that leave us?

Yahoo

Upsetting the status quo in such a way that benefits consumers can be a good thing, although not at the expense of customer safety or employee wage suppression. There is plenty of data that indicates being an Uber driver is not a viable full time job, but it is a job. Bringing competition to new markets, where there were either not enough drivers (reportedly the case in Austin), rip-offs (see above in Saigon), or corruption (London) – this is all good too, and Uber has been a part of this. 

Moreover, like Susan Fowler, there are no doubt a lot of good people working at Uber. I’ve worked at a controversial company, and understand that in spite of what the executives or others have been responsible for, there could still be good reasons to work there.

YAHOO is the acronym which Jerry Yang said was the basis for his company’s name: you always have other options. Uber had other options, could have made other choices. What if?

What if Uber didn’t smear reporters and politicians who dared question and confront the company?

What if Uber had gone into markets with an attitude of being competitive and fair? These are not exclusive.

What if Uber employed adults, and had a real HR department that cared about its employees, not protecting dickhead managers?

What if Uber treated its drivers like employees?

What if Uber behaved in an ethical manner?

Our experience with Uber drivers, not Uber the corporate misfit, but at the street level, just like the tuk-tuk drivers, taxi drivers, and just about everyone else we met, was the same – they were just looking for a way to make a living. 

Epilogue: midnight in Chiang Mai

We had flown from Montpellier to Paris then to Shanghai, and then one last flight, and we landed in the early afternoon in Chiang Mai. When we got out of the plane it was exceedingly hot and humid, a heavy column of air and moisture weighing down. A driver from the hotel met us, threw our bags in the back of the truck, we climbed in the cool air conditioned cab, and he shuttled us to the lovely Ruen Come Inn on the outskirts of the city.

The inn was perfect: the grounds were grass and palm trees, geckos on the exterior walls, a spacious dark wood room with air conditioning. That first afternoon there Catherine practiced her Thai while in the shower; I’m not sure what the actual phrase was, but when spoken quickly in an unflattering parody of a nasally southeast Asian voice, her echoes from the tile and wood bathroom sounded like, “YOU ARE NOT MY MOM” or “YOU STEPPED ON MY BONG.”

That evening, cleaned up, and feeling very wired, we walked to a nearby a shopping area, the outside of which was an open air market and concert venue. There we had our first meal, a sort of pre-dinner. Later we took a pick-up truck taxi to the center of town where there as more wonderfully spicy food, and a beer new, and now dear to me: Chang. One of the best things in the world is drinking an icy cold Chang pounder with some spicy Thai food in Chiang Mai.

We walked around a little, but then all at once we were tired and done and it was time to go back to the inn. We found a tuk-tuk driver, and after five seconds of looking at the map on Annie’s phone (showing where our inn was), he got us seated, then took off through the streets of Chiang Mai – our first of many tuk-tuk rides. It was the antithesis of how the day started: primitive, thrilling, open, noisy, exotic, and wonderful. And those tuk-tuk drivers make the Italians, and all those Ubers, look like old lady drivers.

References   [ + ]

1. The main source for this list was an article at The Guardian dated 18 June 2017. See https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/uber-travis-kalanick-scandal-pr-disaster-timeline.
2. On the lawsuit about the status of drivers: http://nyti.ms/1WJ4skz.
3. Concerning Uber’s resistance to regulations and smear tactics in Austin: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/10/uber-lyft-austin-ann-kitchen-sxsw-texas.
4. Well written and amazing, see Susan Fowler’s article about being harassed: https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber.
5. I could never live this close to the equator. It’s not the heat, it’s that at this low latitude there are no long summer days – it’s dark by six in the evening.
6. See http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/10/07/how-uber-stalled-in-london/
7. See https://iwgb.org.uk/2017/11/10/uber-loses-its-appeal-against-iwgb-members-farrar-and-aslam/

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