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Umar Lee Headshot

Why Progressives Should Think Twice About Embracing Uber and Lyft

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TAXI CAB
Thanasis Zovoilis via Getty Images

Since 2005 it has been my pleasure to be a cab driver in my hometown of St. Louis. On a daily basis I get to see all parts of St. Louis City, St. Louis County and often the Metro-East and beyond. While I love my job there are also many challenges. I've had to deal with attempted robberies, people throwing up in my cab, urinating in the cab, fighting in the backseat, inappropriate sexual behavior in the backseat, people who jump out and run, passengers who have tried to fight me, and almost anything else you can think of. Still, I love my job.

What do I love? I love meeting new people every day and hearing their stories. There are some passengers I've been picking up for years and by now they know my kids' names and I know their kids' names. There have been passengers I became friends with and others I have counseled through divorces and deaths in the family. When my ex-wife and I divorced, I told my passengers even before I told my family. These relationships, and the thrill of seeing the look on the faces of my passengers when they see the Arch, Old Courthouse or Central Library for the first time, makes all the hard times worth it. We get them all. One day I picked up former St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan and dropped him off at Busch Stadium and my next passenger was a homeless guy out of the New Life Evangelistic Center. The full microcosm of society.

What Uber and Lyft Do and How They Damage the Profession

Uber and Lyft may sound like a good idea and may sound "progressive." They probably sound the best to people who know the least about cabs. We can start with the knowledge that St. Louis has a long history of cab companies. Some still operating and many who have went away. There are many professional cabbies who have been driving for decades. For cabbies to earn a decent living there has to be proper regulation of the industry. Too few cabs and the public isn't served and too many and drivers can't make decent money. St. Louis has done a pretty good job at regulating the industry through the Metropolitan Taxi Commission. Not perfect by a long shot; but one of the better regulatory bodies by national standards.

Driving a cab in St. Louis is a job that has allowed drivers to buy homes, raise families and send their children to college. Its not a plaything for me. I work six or seven days a week on this job (usually 10-12 hours a day) and that's the money I use to support my children and pay my bills. While business in the fall, winter and spring is brisk, for the most part come summer time business grinds to a halt. Drivers barely make it in the summer time and there is little margin for error. With Uber and Lyft appearing on the scene that margin of error may be wiped away, drivers may lose their jobs, tuition may not get paid, the lights may go out, the gas may get cut off, evictions can happen, and marriages and relationships may crumble. Its that serious.

St. Louis is already a city that has lost so many good-paying blue-collar jobs. America has become a nation of haves and have-nots and St. Louis is no different. Gone are the days when you could walk up and down Broadway or Hall Street and find good-paying jobs with ease to feed your families. Good jobs are scarce in this city for the working-class and driving a cab is one of those good jobs. Lyft and Uber are part of the Walmartization of America. Part-time workers earning fast-food wages. These drivers are in a very real sense akin to scab workers, and like the companies they drive for, represent regression and not progression.

There is nothing progressive about lowering earnings for working-class people, nor is there anything progressive about undercutting labor costs to the point workers are driven into poverty and homelessness. It's a game as old as the laborers in the days of the Bible and as recent as those sweating in the mines of Western and Southern Africa. Play the working class against one another for the benefit of the wealthy who seek to be served no matter the human cost.

Who Catches Cabs

There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about who actually catches cabs. In a city with the "Delmar Divide," where black and white don't mix as much as we should and the poor and the rich mix even less, people tend to not know a lot about each others lives.

Most of the people who catch cabs in St. Louis are not hipsters, or yuppies or business people or college students. They're not out drinking and partying. No, the bulk of our passengers are the elderly and the working poor. People who catch cabs to and from work every day. Those who take cabs from the grocery store or to the doctor's office. Sunday is Easter and without a doubt I will be taking people to church and to their families homes to celebrate, There are others who we pick up from the emergency rooms of hospitals, rescue from domestic violence taking them to shelters or pick up from the Ronald McDonald house for sick children. No tips and usually not that much money.

We can afford to do that because come Thursday night we get the college kids from Washington University and St. Louis University and on Friday and Saturday night we are both delivering and picking up those enjoying the nightlife of St, Louis. That's where we are able to make serious money. Take that away and we lose drivers -- and losing drivers will hurt the poor and working-class people who need cabs the most. Lyft and Uber are not designed to serve the poor and working-class populations in the St. Louis area. It's an elitist concept for an elite crowd. But rest assured its casualties will be in deep south city, north city and north county.

Problems With St. Louis Cab Service

No business or business-model is perfect. People aren't perfect and from time to time we all may need a little rejuvenation. There are certainly things cab companies and drivers can do to improve the industry. There are also things that have already been done like the "STL Taxi" and "Taxi Magic" apps to order legal cabs in St. Louis.

However, allow me to share how customers can be proactive in improving their experience. Since Uber and Lyft are designed to serve the hipster population let me share with you some of the problems hipsters seem to have with catching cabs:

  • Making time-orders and then still coming out late or not coming out at all
  • Calling from high-rise apartment buildings and not waiting in the lobby forcing drivers to double-park and block traffic
  • Calling for a cab from a bar and then just hopping into the first cab you see regardless as to whether its your cab or not
  • Getting into unlicensed cabs and then complaining you got screwed


On the driver's part, if you are displeased with any licensed driver or have a complaint, you can call the company or the MTC. There are safeguards in place to protect passengers.

Hipsters and a Just Society

To call a spade a spade, Lyft and Uber aren't coming to serve good ol' St. Louis Hoosiers or North St. Louis. Nope, they are coming by invitation and for the hipster population (and to a lesser extent business people and college students). Hence they kicked off at Nebula (the center of hipster thought in St. Louis).

So, now, let me use this time to call out hipsters and ask: What kind of a society do you want to live in? Do you favor the right-wing economics of the GOP or do you favor a more humane and just society? Hipsters are mostly associated with the left and being progressive. But with a closer look you could very well come to a different conclusion. Of course there are many brilliant and progressive folks in the hipster population who do much good, but still these questions need to be asked.

If you're supporting the decimation of good working-class jobs you can't make a very good claim of being progressive. Uber and Lyft are conservative economic ideas. Over the last several years, I've heard several young hipsters tell my they're socially-liberal and economic-conservatives, a popular trend in American politics. Well, I hate to break it to you buddy, but it's economics and the role of the state that defines politics. If you're an economic conservative, despite how ironic and sarcastic you may be or how tight your jeans are, you, my friend, are a conservative.

However, there is something even worse. If you believe the resources of the state should be used to help the affluent and disenfranchise the poor, which often happens during gentrification, that puts you in a category that conjures up some very nasty images from the 20th century.

Some will look from the outside and say hipsters succeed because of three things: government aid, racial solidarity and class solidarity. If I were a hipster, I would be looking to counter that image. I would be looking to hire African-Americans in bars and restaurants opening up in heavily black areas and let it be known those in the neighborhoods will be the first to be hired. Yet, that is not the case. These bars and restaurants open in black neighborhoods with high unemployment rates and the staffs are either all-white or nearly all-white and not from the neighborhood. St. Louis cabbies are mostly minorities; but I am willing to wager most Lyft and Uber drivers won't be. This is an issue the local NAACP, Black Clergy Coalition and Urban League needs to take up for this reason.

There is nothing progressive about moving into black neighborhoods. The term "settler" and "pioneer" are hardly progressive. St. Louis was a Native American neighborhood when the Europeans arrived and that didn't turn out to be very progressive. If moving into black neighborhoods made one a progressive surely the likes of Cecil Rhodes, the Belgians employed by King Leopold in the Congo and the Afrikaans of South Africa would be seen as the most progressive people ever. If being a settler and pioneer was such a beautiful thing, Israel wouldn't need to keep over 100,000 troops in the West Bank. It's what you do when you move in. Do you move in as brothers and sisters or do you move in as conquerors? Do you come to work with the local population or do you come to eradicate the local population?

Gentrification fueled by hipsters is in its early stages in St. Louis. You have a choice: do you want to repeat the methods that have brutalized the poor and working-class in cities like New York, DC and San Francisco -- or do you want to be true leaders and trailblazers in St. Louis and advocate for a just society? Saying no to Lyft and Uber and yes to good-paying working-class jobs will be a step in the right direction and a show of good faith.

The media also has a role. While hipsters may be few in numbers, they have a stranglehold over conversations about St. Louis in the media (particularly in public media). Their side tends to be the only side to get air or ink. So, I ask the local media to be fair and just and cover both sides of this issue.

Solidarity With Labor and Show-Me 15 and Mayor Slay

Lyft and Uber come at a time of great turmoil for the working-class in St. Louis. Republican lawmakers (who I'm sure would love Lyft as Lyft has hired GOP lobbyists before) are trying to make Missouri a right-to-work state. In other words, they're trying to get rid of unions in Missouri and make our state more equivalent to Mississippi or Arkansas in terms of worker's rights.This was tried in the 1970s and failed miserably. Those were different times though. That was a Democratic Party committed to the poor and working-class. Many Democratic voters today think being progressive is about watching Stephen Colbert and eating from Whole Foods (owned by a right-winger, by the way) and are not concerned with issues like right-to-work. Yet there are many who are fighting on behalf of the people. As St. Louis cabbies we must stand with them because Lyft and Uber come in the same spirit as right-to-work. We must also support the Show Me 15 campaign organized by fast-food workers in St. Louis. Lyft and Uber want to drive down our earnings and McDonald's and Burger King are seeking to do the same with their workers. Working-class solidarity between professions.

In closing, I would like to thank St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who has been supportive of St. Louis cabbies and the MTC. Today more than ever I am happy I voted for Mayor Slay and worked for his re-election and consider him a friend to cabbies and a great mayor (now don't let me down).

Umar Lee is a full-time cabbie, father of two, and author of crime-fiction novels. He writes a blog at: umarlee.wordpress.com