Portland, Ore., is a charming place with plenty of green trees, street names that inspired Simpson's characters, and people who still claim that drafting Greg Oden over Kevin Durant was the right move. Business took me to Portland last week, and despite all the wonderful things about the city, there is one major flaw: Portland hates progress. More specifically, Portland hates the taxi app Uber. The municipal government has caved to the taxi unions, and Uber is not allowed to operate in the city at all.
I looked down on these poor Portlanders, and I pitied how they lived quaint lives in a land that time seemed to have forgotten. These people still call dispatchers or, even worse, stand on street corners attempting in vain to hail cabs that they pray will happen to drive by and rescue them. Their own government has forsaken the population and forced them to live in a city filled with inconvenience rather than its much, much more popular counterpart, convenience. I couldn't wait to get back to Seattle, where I currently reside, so I could re-enter a world that embraces innovation and the disruption of broken, legacy systems. Surely, I thought to myself, Seattle would never make a mistake of that magnitude.
Last Monday Seattle made a mistake of this exact magnitude. My worst fears came true when the city council of Seattle passed a resolution that drastically reduces the number of Uber drivers who are allowed on the road at any given time. Living for a few days through the traditional taxi-cab system of Portland made me realize two things, the first being that I really, really love Uber, and the second being that I could not stay silent as these cities stifle innovation and ingenuity in a country that is supposed to admire and promote these attributes.
Companies and industries fail when they stagnate from an innovation perspective, and when they stop listening to, and caring about, the end consumer. At its best, capitalism solves a problem by disrupting an old and broken system and creating in its place something new and useful and better. The taxi system is the very definition of an old and broken system. Instead of continuing to rant like a lunatic who sounds like he must have worked as a speechwriter for the Romney campaign, let's go into some analysis of the best- and worst-case scenarios for an intoxicated person needing a ride home on a cold, winter night.
Best-case scenario using the current taxi cartel: Call a taxi. Wait on hold for 10 to 20 minutes. Finally talk to a human being. This human being hates you. This human being hangs up on you before you place an order. Call again. Wait on hold for 20 to 30 minutes. Finally talk to a human being again. This human really hates you. Eventually order a cab. You are informed that the cab will arrive in five to 50 minutes. You debate whether you have time to get pizza while you wait. You decide not to get pizza. Wait 10 minutes. Decide to get pizza. Finish pizza. Wait. Realize it's really cold out and you don't have a jacket. Wait some more. Call to check on the status of your cab. Your cab will arrive in five to 50 minutes. Decide to get more pizza. You are now fatter from too much pizza, and you have lost a toe to hypothermia. Attempt to track your cab, but this is not a feature that is offered despite the fact that you can currently track your child or your Chinese-food deliveryman with ease. Your phone dies. Your taxi finally arrives, 50 minutes from the second time you were told your cab would arrive within 50 minutes. Get berated for paying with a credit card even though it's 2014 and everyone takes credit cards. Drive home with the window down even though it's freezing outside, due to the overpowering stench emanating from your driver. You have at last arrived home safely, but you are now missing one finger and one toe. You smell like your cab driver. The two slices of pizza are hard at work clogging your arteries. Go to sleep knowing that heart disease is the number-one killer of Americans. Thanks, Seattle City Council.
Worst-case scenario using the taxi cartel: Same procedure as above, but eventually you get tired of waiting, so you decide to drive home even though you have had one too many drinks. You crash your car into an orphanage and die. Thanks, Seattle City Council.
Best-case scenario using Uber: You order a car, and you see that it will arrive in exactly four minutes. It arrives in exactly four minutes. The courteous driver appears in a spotless car, offers you a bottle of water, and gets you back home safe and sound. Your driver is really funny and smart, and you strike up a conversation, and he becomes the best man at your wedding.
Worst-case scenario using Uber: You want to order a car, but there is surge pricing, and rides cost double. For approximately one second you debate whether this is worth it, and then you read the best- and worst-case scenarios above and instantly accept the surge pricing. Uber uses the law of supply and demand, and you, the consumer, make an informed decision. You forgot your wallet at the bar, which is unfortunate, but at least you can still pay for your cab on your phone. Your Uber driver doesn't have any more bottles of water, but at least he smells pleasant.
So which scenario would you prefer? If you choose the regular taxi system, then you have a really strange hatred of orphans.
City councilman Tim Burgess used the following apt comparison to defend his decision to vote against the ban: "It's like blocking Neflix to ensure people pay for Blockbuster." My man Tim is dead on. This is a government picking winners and losers, which is exactly what the government is not supposed to do in a free-market capitalist society. Imagine if the Discman people, the VCR people, or, worst of all, the pay-for-porn people had a powerful lobby group and union that were this effective at bringing progress to a screeching halt. Life would be a whole lot worse for a whole lot of us.
When we talk about Uber, we aren't talking about an anti-competitive corporate monolith like Comcast. We are talking about a company that is the living embodiment of the best of America's business ideals, and yet they are being punished for their success. Uber is a combination of ingenuity, hard work, great technology and an excellent business model that fills a need that the marketplace was ignoring. Uber built a better mousetrap, and they accomplish their goals by focusing on the customer first by offering an intuitive and clean interface with an exceptional user experience.
I'm not arguing that Uber has never made any mistakes along the way, but allowing taxi unions to shut down Uber instead of encouraging them to innovate and compete is a massive mistake in both the short and long term. Uber is environmentally friendly (fewer people driving) and socially responsible (fewer drunk drivers on the road), and they sometimes deliver you ice cream or let you drive around with adorable puppies. Knowing all these things, if you are still anti-Uber, you are basically admitting that you hate the environment, you want to see more drunk drivers on the roads, and, most importantly, you hate ice cream, puppies and America.
Are you sure this is the position you want to be taking? Let Uber live.
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