“Explain to the public why thousands of your cars flooding the streets won’t endanger New Yorkers,” Ethan Gerber, executive director of the Greater New York Taxi Association, said in a statement Wednesday challenging Uber to a public debate, two days after Uber challenged the Mayor to one. “Explain to my fellow New Yorkers how you plan to serve those who don’t have expensive, fancy I-phones.”
Uber has likewise slammed the national taxi industry at every turn. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s brash CEO and cofounder, said last year he needed a campaign manager to help him wage a political battle against “an asshole called ‘Taxi.'” David Plouffe, the top Obama adviser hired to be that campaign manager, has since derisively referred to the taxi industry as a “cartel.”
“We’re here to keep people safe, make sure workers and consumers are treated fairly, and keep this city growing and competitive,” Mayor De Blasio wrote in an op-ed for The New York Daily News last weekend explaining his administration’s moral imperative to cap growth. Knowingly or not, however, the Mayor entered into a turf war where neither side really qualifies as the moral solution. At least not yet.
“No one deserves sympathy or support in this mess,” David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University, told Mashable. “Uber is a great service. E-hails are a great service. Taxis are a key piece of urban transportation. But there’s no obvious good guy to root for here.”
Taxi drivers riled over a proposal that would allow livery cabs to make street pickups in the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan demonstrate at New York’s City Hall, Monday, June 20, 2011.
“Drivers carry most of the costs of their job. For example, they pay for gas; daily or weekly leases; vehicle maintenance and repair; car registration and inspection; fines and fees; affiliation with dispatcher bases; and for ownerdrivers, the cost of the car.”
That description of the burden of New York City cab drivers, from a 2007 research report, could be applied almost verbatim to the tens of thousands of drivers who have signed up for Uber in that city and others.
Both Uber and the traditional taxi industry have faced scattered lawsuits in various markets for classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees entitled to overtime pay, worker’s compensation insurance and more.
Uber has rationalized its stance on the issue by noting many of its drivers prefer the flexibility that comes from being contractors who can work on their own schedules and for multiple companies. For the traditional cab industry, and perhaps Uber as well, it’s about placing “the entire onus” of costs on the driver, according to Graham Hodges, a history professor at Colgate University and author of Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver.
“Drivers are kind of between a rock and a hard place, except the hard place may be a bit harder than before,” Hodges says. Traditional fleet owners are “notoriously difficult and dishonest” in dealing with drivers, he says. But Uber and similar services in the “gig economy” don’t always have “the kind of choice that implies.” Indeed, one recent survey of gig economy workers found insufficient pay and flexibility to be two of the leading causes for jumping ship.
Nailing down precise pay for Uber and cab drivers can be difficult. A research report put out by Uber found drivers in New York earned $26-$30 per hour on average, depending on hours worked. That does not include the many expenses drivers incur — gas, maintenance, insurance. TLC data, by comparison, says cab drives make $14-$31, after certain expenses, depending on time of day.
Even if a driver takes home more money today than he or she might from working a yellow cab, there’s no guarantee that will continue. Uber has already shown a willingness to increase the commission it takes in certain markets.
Uber drivers and their supporters protest in front of the offices of the Taxi and Limousine Commission in New York, Thursday, May 28, 2015.
When debating whether to hail a cab or an Uber (or simply take public transportation), the average consumer is likely not giving much thought to whether taxi cab drivers feel overworked or if Uber is hoarding user data.
As Peter Singer, a moral philosopher and author of The Most Good You Can Do, told Mashable in an earlier interview about Uber, “We evolved to respond to some things — images of abused people and animals — and not to other things, like misuse of data.”
Instead the leading considerations in New York City and elsewhere are likely price, convenience and the overall customer experience.
Uber, at least anecdotally, tends to be in the stronger position in New York for customer experience — thanks to its rating system that enforces the better behavior from drivers as well as its fleet of new black cars recently leased and entirely maintained by individual drivers.
Uber often trumps in convenience as well, by virtue of letting users quickly hail a car through an application without having to flail around on a street corner. There are also now more Uber-affiliated cars in the city (more than 20,000) than yellow cabs (about 13,500), according to data from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), bolstering Uber’s convenience. Uber has also tried to frame itself as a key service in the boroughs outside the bustling midtown and lower Manhattan, though the city’s green cabs serve more than 50,000 rides daily exclusively in these areas.
Price, not surprisingly, is the most debatable. Uber initially marketed itself as more of a luxury service. It is therefore assumed to be at least as expensive as a comparable yellow cab ride, with the exception of limited-time promotions where it tried to undercut cab prices, or the prices of competitors like Lyft.
One study released this year from the University of Cambridge analyzed rides from 2013 and found that Uber is usually more expensive than yellow cabs for shorter rides under $35, but becomes a better deal for longer trips.