The Uber experience is becoming ubiquitous. The amazement of virgin Uberers as they realise they can, in seconds, order and pay for a ride that arrives in minutes and costs markedly less than usual taxis is testament to its success. Disruptive industries have been the engines of economic development through the ages – and those who seek to stand in its way are not judged kindly by history.
Uber is succeeding because it does what consumers want. In much the same way that the iPhone revolutionised user-friendly electronics, the Uber model is the disruptive revolution that the transportation sector has needed. Why should we not be able to hail a ride from a smartphone? Why should we be happy to pay more just to protect the existing industry? Uber aficionados do not have to endure the struggle of hailing late-night cabs off the street or endlessly calling booked-up taxi firms.
Arguably, Uber’s popularity and success derives not just from its convenience and value but also from the superior service and safety it offers. Traditional taxi unions claim that since Uber drivers are unlicensed, they cannot be trusted. On the contrary, recording your trip online – with the all the driver’s details – makes them more trustworthy. If something goes wrong, all is recorded; if something is lost or stolen in the taxi, the vehicle can be tracked. By allowing drivers and passengers to rate each other, the bad are sifted from the good. The wallowing drunkard does not ruin it for the rest of us. The maniacal mad-head running red lights will get fewer, if any, rides. Different styles appeal to different customers – my last driver, Murshad, seemed to be auditioning for a job as a stuntman, but he got me to St. James’ Park in time for kick-off. I gave him full marks for fucks given; a more tentative passenger would be able to avoid him in future.
Capitalism only works when competition and challenger start-ups can thrive if they provide a better product or fail if they don’t – and when established insiders can thrive and fail equally. Far too often governments and regulators are in hock to trade unions, industry groups and big business protecting ‘insiders’ with taxpayers’ money at the expense of ‘outsiders’. This is all too evident in the squeamish and pathetic way many governments are seeking to restrict or ban Uber to protect the market share of traditional taxis. ‘Black cabs’ have no divine right to exist: they do so only as long as there is a demand for their service. All of the most important technological advances have come from mavericks being able to disrupt the existing order. Industries that cannot adapt to technology and consumer sensibilities deserve to flounder.
It may be lamentable for those whose livelihoods are at stake, but history shows that creative disruption benefits us all: the consumer gets a better, cheaper service; the worker discovers new ways to make a living; the innovator is heartened to innovate further. And society becomes richer, healthier and happier. The sharing economy is here to stay.