October 19, 2020

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All Hail, Uber?

Taxi-traumatized Winnipeggers should know there's some baggage in the company's trunk

Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press Files</p><p>After a gruelling city hall debate this past week, the road is almost clear for ride-hailing service Uber to hit Winnipeg streets come March.</p>

Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press Files

After a gruelling city hall debate this past week, the road is almost clear for ride-hailing service Uber to hit Winnipeg streets come March.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/12/2017 (1045 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It was a frigid January night in 2010 and, shortly after midnight, the remains of the wedding social spilled onto a North End street. There, between bouts of well-lubricated laughter, we counted up our number and called for three cabs.

Many Winnipeggers have a story of taxicab frustration. This is one of mine. It is not rare, or special.

No cabs showed up. We called again, and still none came. After nearly an hour, people began to break away, walking to Main Street in groups of three and four. Hampered by a party dress and narrow stilettos, I chose to stay.

The story of taxicabs in Winnipeg has long been one of frustration, poor service and safety concerns, both for drivers and for passengers.

Suddenly, as the last group drifted away, I realized I was alone. Huddled in a doorway, I gathered my coat to guard against the cold. But nothing could protect me from feeling so exposed, so vulnerable and stranded far from home.

I called again, both of the city’s two big taxi companies. And then again. "The cab is on its way," the dispatcher said, and said many times again. Finally, after more than two hours and more than a dozen calls, I woke a friend to come fetch me.

This is a story of no great consequence; other than my frozen toes, nothing bad happened. Still, the anxious and ultimately futile wait underscored the industry’s failings; how can a vital service leave people stranded so long?

If Uber had been well-known then, I would have longed for it.

So when fans of ride-hailing services push for their arrival here, well, I understand. The story of taxicabs in Winnipeg has long been one of frustration, poor service and safety concerns, both for drivers and for passengers.

Cabs that don’t come. Racial profiling of passengers. Sexual assault and harassment, especially of women.

Yes, I’ve seen that too: drivers who asked if I had a boyfriend, as I shifted uncomfortably in the back seat. Drivers who put a hand on the meter and asked if I’d like my ride to be free, leaving the means of commerce a sinister open question.

To many people, ride-hailing services such as Uber offer an ideal solution to these frustrations. And their dream will almost certainly come true: after a gruelling city hall debate Wednesday, the lane is almost clear for such services to hit the streets here in March.

But we should take a look the full picture of what is likely coming.

Like many Silicon Valley darlings, Uber and similar companies such as Lyft aim to "disrupt" their target industry; in this case, by making taxis less attractive by offering something more flexible and connected for both drivers and passengers.

When Silicon Valley talks about "disruption," what it usually means is dismantling established forms of labour, sidestepping regulations by which communities manage them and eroding protections for the sector’s workers.

Uber is not the only ride-hailing service, but it is the biggest player — and, surely to the dismay of its competitors, its dominance in the sector is beginning to blur the line between brand name and category, like a vehicular Kleenex.

So let’s talk about Uber. In June, founder Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO. It was a move demanded by its largest investors, after years of cascading scandals about Kalanick personally, and the company more generally.

When Silicon Valley talks about “disruption,” what it usually means is dismantling established forms of labour, sidestepping regulations by which communities manage them and eroding protections for the sector’s workers.

To itemize all of those scandals here would be impossible; there is only so much space.

They include detailed reports of a toxic work environment for female employees, theft of technology, underpaying drivers and Uber’s use of its Greyball software tool to evade government critics and law enforcement.

COLIN CORNEAU / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Nothing’s more frustrating than not finding a cab when you’re a long way from home.</p>

COLIN CORNEAU / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Nothing’s more frustrating than not finding a cab when you’re a long way from home.

In June, Uber fired a top executive, Eric Alexander, only after journalists began asking questions: Alexander had obtained medical records of a woman who was raped by an Uber driver in India, and discussed them with Kalanick.

Alexander apparently believed the accusation was a smear operation by a rival company, and sought to discredit the victim. (The accused was, in fact, convicted of the 2014 assault, and Uber later settled a lawsuit with the victim.)

This is not the only time that sexual assault has been a concern with Uber’s service.

A sample: earlier this year, two Uber drivers in or near Toronto were charged with sexually assaulting passengers. In January, a San Antonio driver was charged after allegedly following a passenger into her home and sexually assaulting her.

In late September, transportation officials in London, U.K., announced that the city would not renew Uber’s licence, citing "a lack of corporate responsibility." In a statement, officials detailed four key areas of concern.

One of them was passenger safety. London police investigated 32 drivers for sexual assault between May 2015 and May 2016, and voiced concerns that Uber was not taking appropriate action to keep its riders safe from assaults.

In one case, the company failed to remove a driver accused of sexual assault; the same driver went on to assault another passenger, a police inspector told transportation officials.

(Uber apologized for "mistakes we’ve made," and filed an appeal; in the meantime, it continues to operate in London.)

Since Kalanick’s resignation, his successor, former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, has spent considerable time on cleanup duty, apologizing for the company’s past transgressions and pledging a healthier corporate culture.

He had to apologize again just last month, when news surfaced that Uber had suffered — and concealed — a major security breach late last year. As a result of the breach, hackers obtained the personal data of 57 million users.

The company did not notify regulators; it paid the hackers to keep the breach secret and delete the data.

Which is all to say that Uber, though beloved by many of its users, is not a panacea for the problems that plague Winnipeg’s taxi industry. At a basic structural level, that’s especially true for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Using a ride-hailing service requires a smartphone and a level of comfort using tech apps, which may be a barrier for many seniors; it also requires a credit card or a PayPal account, which may be a barrier for many low-income people.

As it grows, let us never stop asking who Uber is ‐ and isn’t ‐ working for.

Yet, this is also true: devoted users generally love the service, often viewing it as indispensable. These days, Uber’s presence in a market is often seen as a sign of a city’s modernity; its absence a sign of a backwater.

("They don’t even have Uber here," is a lament I’ve heard from a more than a few recent visitors.)

And there’s little doubt that the service will address some of Winnipeggers’ immediate, long-simmering frustrations with the city’s taxi service — such as being stranded for hours on an empty street, assured repeatedly that a cab is on its way.

Still, as we hurtle towards the introduction of Uber, Lyft and possibly others, we should remember: we are inviting a corporate giant into our community market, one whose problems are often far beyond what any individual city can uncover or manage.

Fun fact: Uber’s estimated worth, in advance of an expected IPO in 2019, is nearly twice Winnipeg’s GDP. By allowing it to expand into Winnipeg, we’ll have a hand in growing that figure just a little bit more.

That’s welcome news for many. But as it grows, let us never stop asking who Uber is — and isn’t — working for.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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