“Uber is an unmitigated force for good”

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write a post titled “Uber is an unmitigated force for good”. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have any strong feelings about Uber, itself, and there are some valid concerns about them. The company has been known to engage in some shady business practices, and the contractor status of their drivers could be open to exploitation.

(And, to be clear, their drivers are independent contractors, and not just because they say so. Canada Revenue Agency has very clear rules to differentiate between independent contractors and employees, and Uber drivers are clearly contractors. However, just because something is legal does not mean it can’t also be exploitative.)

No, I was measuring my words carefully. I wasn’t going to say that Uber was “an unmitigated good”, I was going to say “an unmitigated force for good”. And it all came about from a little sticker.

(By the way, if you ever write anything remotely positive about Uber, you’re likely to attract trolls who either work for, or have some connection to, Ottawa’s corrupt taxi cartel. So let’s just get this out of the way now: Hi Trolls! Feel free to rot!)

A few months ago (shortly after Uber started rolling in Ottawa), I noticed that Ottawa cabs had stickers on the back of their cars trumpeting their new app (sound familiar?).  Obviously, this shouldn’t be big news, but Ottawa’s taxi cartel are notorious for not wanting to offer exemplary service. They were slow to take credit cards or debit cards. They had an antiquated ordering system. And they were likely to leave stranded in the middle of nowhere if they felt like it.

Now with the arrival of Uber, it appeared they were willing to step up their game and start providing the level of service their customers deserved. But…

When Uber came on the scene, the taxi cartel fought and fought hard. They’ve implored police to waste their resources policing Uber, and they’ve tried to use their notorious political influence to get their way at City Hall. (Jim Watson is a fervent opponent of Uber, but that doesn’t seem to a result of graft; he seems to be honestly irked by this company that is pleasing so many of his constituents.)

Well, that’s par for the course. They could keep up their rent seeking while also providing good service. It’d still be a step up.

Then the threats came.

The taxi union said that they couldn’t control their drivers, and didn’t know what they might do, hinting violence and vigilantism. In one of several self-indicting moments, the union made their drivers out to be wild animals who should never be allowed to serve the public.

This past weekend, we had a taxi strike. It was a little odd. The drivers promised that this strike wouldn’t actually affect service levels…an unintended admission that their service standards are about as horrid as you could imagine. Ottawa cabbies do not have a good reputation. Uber seems to get far more praise than condemnation from passengers. I do not know why cabbies would want to send customers to their over-performing competition.

This is all rather bad, but it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Demonstrating the inherent obnoxious entitlement in the taxi cartel, drivers are planning to hunt down Uber drivers. They’re going to go undercover, order Uber drivers, then…ambush them? Berate them? Attack them? Actually get to their destination in a safe and comfortable manner?

They’re going to do this to try to get the cops or bylaw to act (which they are already doing…this is just grandstanding…or whining…or both). Of course, if you’ve ever tried to get bylaw or the cops to address illegal behaviour on the road (like, say, dangerous driving by a Blue Line cabbie), you’ll know that these sorts of reports go absolutely nowhere (even as Ottawa Police Services keeps telling people to report infractions).

(This will be an interesting test to see if city council, bylaw and the police are actually in the pocket of big business. If cabbies get (even more) special treatment, we’ll know they are.)

So, maybe Uber isn’t an unmitigated force good. They’ve stirred something deeply ugly in the taxi industry, and it could get back for the public. Or maybe this is just another positive. Exposing the taxi cartel for the corrupt, self-entitled, rent-seeking bullies that they are probably counts as a public service.

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Signs of failure

slow down for usRecently, the city launched a new campaign to help make our streets safer. I’m not sure what you’d call it. It’s not really a safety campaign, and it’s not really an awareness campaign. Truly, it’s just an admission of guilt. The city has built horribly dangerous roads, but are willing to make nothing but the most facile gestures towards fixing them.

The project is called Slow down for us! It appears to consist of putting up lawn signs that read “Slow down for us!” and show kids playing. It’s a worthwhile message: let’s not kill children.

First, the good news; councillors are getting behind this project. Many councillors have been out putting up these signs, distributing them to residents and advertising the initiative. It’s good to see councillors getting on board with safety initiatives (however, any councillor who is willing to hand out these signs, but isn’t willing to do anything to actually curb traffic speed and volumes is a hypocrite).

That’s it. There’s nothing else good about this project. The only reason we resort to asking residents to put up signs exhorting motorists to slow the fuck down and stop running over kids is because we over-build our roads, rely on car-centric neighbourhood design and do next to nothing to stop or punish dangerous drivers.

Above, you see a picture of Rideau-Rockliffe’s councillor Tobi Nussbaum helping launch this initiative. It so happens that I bike through his ward every day. On Queen Mary Street between Quill and Edith there are five Slow Down signs on one side of the street. The other side of the is a park, and there is another sign posted. Between Quill and Vera, there are twelve of these signs.

This isn’t an awareness campaign; it’s desperation. Queen Mary is a residential street. But it’s a wide residential street with, mostly, long sight lines. It is a street designed for speed at the expense of safety. The popularity of these signs on Queen Mary isn’t and indication of a successful safety campaign. It’s an indictment of a city that doesn’t care about safety.

Now, I believe that Nussbaum is a councillor who actually cares about street safety, but not every councillor does…not really. And so I would implore any councillor who has backed the Slow down for us! campaign to also back measures that will make our streets substantively safer.

Here’s what needs to be done: road diets, narrower lanes, wider sidewalks, raised crosswalks or intersections, bike lanes, speed bumps, bulb outs, tree cover, lower speed limits, traffic lights programmed to favour walking and bicycling…the list goes on.

However, if you value three minutes of commuting time over the safety children, handing out these signs is little more than a lie.