Sunday, 27 April 2014

Let them eat cake?

Dan Hill writes well, keeps his eyes open and obviously reads voraciously.  When he has the time to add to his blog ‘City of Sound’, it is usually a long form piece, teased out in loops of delicious in-group citations, but as often as not with a serious question at its heart. 

And so it is in the latest Opinion he contributes to Dezeen, which is really just his latest column on his own blog.  The concrete subject of the piece is the Uber taxi app, but the target is "Can public enterprises adopt the popular dynamics of private enterprises?"  

Actually, Hill answers that question in the affirmative, so the really truly relevant discussion is whether there is something fundamentally destructive going on, impacting communities at city and nation state scale (to which we more usually refer as 'societies'), and to which those ‘popular dynamics’ may be something of an antidote?

The Uber taxi app is an internet based  private referral service that matches people who want a certain kind of vehicle for a certain job, with people who have signed up to provide that service.  So far so good, and from his urban informatics vantage point, normally Hill would be enthused.  But he immediately identifies his unease that the referral service sidesteps all the regulatory overburden of the conventional taxi industry.  Hill argues that while those regulations are just a framework for safety, probity, and taxation, more importantly that framework ensures an integrated and equitable public utility, even where it’s made up of private elements.

Hill generalises his concern to question whether the rise of private services which pick off the profitable aspirational opportunities is not leaving the harder problems for the public sector.  If so, they can be seen as stripping out not only the opportunities of policy initiatives for cross-subsidy, but more generally the integrative nature of those services, necessary for maintaining communities at the large contemporary scale of cities, regions and states.

I happen to think he is right, that the trend is overwhelming, and exemplified at almost all levels of services for which city and state are most appropriately responsible.  Hill refers to mobility, communication and health as examples.  He doesn’t mention education, the sector where I happen to work, and where we in Australia are about to see the willful destruction of public universities by just that process.

In the end the piece does no justice to the complex problems of the time scales and systematic diversion of resources.  But one such article shouldn't be expected to.  And as this kind of review post on a blog is even less likely, you really should read Dan Hill's article here.

For background:
  • "France mulls car-sharing GPS app ban" on BBC here."
  • "Uber 'ride-sharing' service under investigation as public warned off app" in Sydney Morning Herald, here.
  • And to be fair, an enthusiastic and comprehensive description of the Uber service in Sydney
    "Now That I've Started Using Uber, I Won't Book Taxis The Normal Way Ever Again" from Business Insider, here.

So why the title? It may be unfair to bring to mind Marie Antoinette's infamous ignorance of the connection between the lives of the elite and of the less privileged.  But there is an alienating underbelly to the changes in communications technology, that is almost the opposite of the inexorable leveling of opportunity so commonly promoted.  Hill's piece reminded me of that.


judy.k said...

After reading some reviews about the Uber Taxi service, from my personal perspectives, I found this service very attractive. First, it is easy to download and to use on your smartphone. It allows you to follow along and see how far away your car is, there is no time wasted for waiting. Second, from most of the reviews, the cars are branded, clean and the drivers are polite ,nicer than the cabs in Sydney. Third, the payment is easy and fast , save time for yourself.

However, if you step back and try to figure out the whole picture. It is necessarily to consider the impact to the operation of our society and impacts on the relationship between individuals and community. First, it is unlawful for any person to operate or drive a vehicle equipped with a meter that registers a charge of any kind, which brings out few problems like tax, safety ,liability issue. Second, the app is deconstructing the traditional taxi industry which not only affects the income and living of traditional taxi drivers , also since traditional taxi is part of our culture, Uber may cause a removal of collective identity in our community.

Having all these risks in this trend, I personally won't support it in my daily life, first, it is not a legally liable transport service . Second, we should always make choice which is benefit for the whole community ,not just considering ourselves ,as we are a part of it. Lastly, I actually found most of the sydney drivers are quite friendly, I do enjoy the traditional taxi service .

Reviews on Uber:
Article relates to the drivers against Uber:

Andrew Beaven said...

The first thing I’d like to point out is that as Judy.K has mentioned in her comment the Uber service is of high standard (Dan Hill calls it ‘smooth as silk’) and as a result has become very popular. I agree with Steven that the debate is not whether public enterprise can adopt private practices but rather the underlying issues with commandeering public services. I would suggest this is a problem especially when considering public health and education.
Perhaps a more curious question is whether the taxi service is public. Taxis unlike trains and buses are regulated but not owned by the state and are themselves profitable private enterprise much like Telecom, Energy Australia (ironically now Chinese owned) and Uber itself. In fact sometimes it appears that the government is privatising any public services it can (Water, Post, Power etc).
I believe however in this case Uber will never fully replace traditional taxis because no matter how seamless the service is it can never be more convenient than a taxi waiting in a public taxi rank. I.e. available right here and right now. This is further exaggerated as many using the taxi service either don’t know when their event will finish or are barely able to walk with intoxication let alone track their Uber Audi SUV on their iPhone.
Are taxis however iconic or an essential part of our city’s makeup? Dan suggests so as he quotes from Tony Judt’s book that visual representation of the London taxi created a sense of city unity and servitude. Whilst I agree with this and with Dan that taxis say much about a city, unfortunately I think this is not a strong case to prevent wide adoption of a better service or a reason for relevant bodies to protect it.
Let’s assume however for a moment that Uber could replace all taxi services. Would it not simply be then one public service replacing another? I think the issue is accountability. Much of our society from insurance to our legal system is not based on things working but happens when they don’t. The real question addressed is that when (not if) there is an accident and someone is killed or injured; who is liable? It is very hard to convict a CEO on the other side of the world who has extensively covered his company by referring to it as ‘a request service’ rather than a transport service (also unlike Judy.K has mentioned the reason Uber is legal in Australia). Dan Hill aligns it with a concept from Douglas Adam’s book as ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’. Therein lies the rub.
So what’s the result? I believe new ideas, dare I say good ones which utilise the use of existing cars and people to help each other are a good thing. I believe Uber is a quality service that will never truly replace our existing public services and so should be supported. There does however need to be some legal framework for accountability. Additionally, the taxi service in Sydney is outrageously expensive and maybe should not have a monopoly on private transport services.
Finally, the taxi service has proven it can adopt private enterprise practices such as the mTaxi app. The question is if the taxi shows up and on time, doesn’t take you around the world for a few extra dollars smelling as Jerry Seinfeld put it like ‘cherry b.o.’ If it cannot provide a comparable service then taxis as we know them may be reduced to picking up intoxicated kids at weekend taxi ranks.

Dan Hill’s Article (the comments below his article are also interesting) -
Uber Reviews -
Douglas Adam’s Quote -'s_Problem
Interesting Background on some Australian Resources -
mTaxi App -

janice said...

I would like to start with discussing the downside of traditional method of taxi services. The service provider (vacant taxi) and customers who are looking for a vacant taxi lack the opportunity to communicate, therefore causing the problem of vacant taxis lining up and blocking the traffic, whilst some people are unable to get on one for minutes. Traditionally, unless customers call a taxi services centre, whether or not one can get a service is purely a matching game of luck. From this point of view a lot of wastages are caused. For example, vacant taxis and waiting customers waste their time; the fuel cost for taxis running on the streets with no customers causes a waste in energy (also causes air pollution), let alone traffic congestion created by vacant taxis looking for customers, as we may have experienced.

The Internet has provided services that will satisfy the needs and desires of the public. Together with the invention of the smartphone and apps, we are certainly living more convenient lives than before. The problem mentioned in the above paragraph has slowly been improved by the popularization of the Internet, where there are apps for in-app booking services on smartphones, as well as Internet booking services.

From Uber’s website and app it is apparent that the enterprise wants to create an exclusive and stylish image. Undoubtedly Uber may be a new way of transportation that is more focused on customer experiences – having to pick a right vehicle that exactly meets one’s needs is something that cannot be achieved by traditional taxi services. However I do think that transport is a basic need that should be available to everyone, and that Uber’s private referral operation system that 100% depends on the Internet lacks the ability to consider for those who have no access. Even it is arguable that smartphones will continue to be the most popular trend for communications; it would have been quite inconvenient for a person without a smartphone (or those whose smartphones have run out of battery or are unable to connect to the Internet) to use Uber.

Another problem of Uber is liscencing. At the moment it may only be a private referral system, but if it grows bigger in the future, Uber drivers will definitely have a negative impact on the profit of traditional taxi enterprises, as there is an additional supply of service. Let alone safety issues as taxi operators have to be licenced, licenced taxi plates is also an investment that is put into the enterprise to limit the supply of service (for Sydney a licenced taxi plate is available for an approximate of $400 000), and private vehicles should not be allowed to share a part of the market when they are not licenced to operate as a business. With Uber traditional taxi services enterprises are affected while consumers benefit.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that Uber is a convenient tool for consumers to enjoy transportation services without the troubles of traditional taxi services. However, it also brings a lot of problems that are unfair to traditional taxi enterprises. Therefore a balance should be kept between traditional servicing methods and Internet taxi booking services like Uber.


Anonymous said...

Uber is a breath of fresh air, an idea and concept that was waiting to be realised and therefore taking the stress off the pubic complaining about bad transport and getting to work or their destination all frustrated and angry. This service is an alternative to public transport something more personal to the consumer and easily accessible. Your very own personal driver at your service a click on your app on your iPhone and no more waiting for change over to finish from 3- 4am after a long night out in the town and No more disappointment when hailing down a taxi and realising the driver did not take any notice of you because you don’t fit into the taxi drivers standard of what a passenger should look like and he drives past you as he judges you on his past experiences even though his light is on. Uber is taking transport to the next level by making it easier and affordable.
"Can public enterprises adopt the popular dynamics of private enterprises?" Public services have been privatised for example Australia post. Businesses that involve sending goods to buyers tend to use private courier services to get the delivery to the consumer. This can lead to higher costs and lower quality of services. Uber may be an unidentified outsourced taxi service that commutes passengers around the city amongst what has been already established. Can both services work together?

I think it is a long time coming, a chain reaction that derived from years and years of poor transportation planning. In Sydney’s east… the tram Line that use to run down Anzac parade from La Perouse to the CBD was removed in 1961 replaced by Sydney Buses , Local gov. now realise the importance of the tram line and are considering bringing it back. The public want something like uber that promise to deliver a service that would be reliable, smooth, safe, affordable, efficient and why not fashionable. However a recent article claims the Victorian gov. is cracking down on the "ridesharing" component issuing $1700 fines to drivers because uber allows any motorist, not necessarily a licensed taxi or hire-car driver to receive money for providing lifts.

How is it that rideshare services is can operate without the same oversight as regular taxis? Steps need to be taken to regulate ridesharing for the duty of care for the user. I think measures need to be regulated by protecting consumers by requiring ridesharing companies to conduct background checks for all drivers and safety checks for the vehicles they use and insurance and some authority is meant to ensure that these rules are uniform and enforceable.
Uber is obviously a business that is providing economic opportunity and affordable, safe transportation. Is this something cities like Sydney and Melbourne want to stop? The government wants drivers to be registered under the taxi driver’s commission.

I think in this an evolving modern world that is providing opportunities and how you adapt and the gov. needs to consider that technology is a major aspect of a reliable service that keeps up with demand and moves with the times. Ridesharing may be a convenient, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly solution for many and especially at times when public transportation just won’t cut it, or for those who live in areas that are underserved by public transportation. But consumers will need to be comfortable with riding at their own risk until ridesharing regulations become the norm and be can then enjoy their own on demand driver at anytime and anywhere.

1. Victoria government issues $1700 fines:
2. Jacob Saulwick states in his article Ride-sharing is more than a cheap lift home:
3. Smartphone & public transit: