Uber is coming to Canberra. Tonight I attended a public meeting aimed at providing information to interested parties.
There were maybe a dozen interested parties, apart from the half dozen public servants, one of whom opened the meeting by warning that if discussion grew heated, the meeting would be closed down. The session would be run in a question and answer format. Various information sheets were available on a table at the front, and if anyone had any questions…
I got first question, and I observed that I’d spent time as a public servant and that presumably those running the session weren’t intending to get all riled up, so were they really expecting violence to break out amongst those sitting quietly in the room?
Emotions had run high at previous sessions, I was informed.
Uber, for those readers who have been stranded on Mars, is a company built around a ride-sharing smartphone app. People with cars make themselves available to drive those needing a lift, the app links driver and passenger, and a fee is calculated based on distance covered and time taken. Uber has been fabulously successful in cities around the world and a few months ago the company announced they were starting up in Canberra.
What has often happened in other places is that the thing starts, people begin driving for Uber, riders use the app, discover that Uber rates are well below taxi fares, they tell their friends and it goes viral. Taxi owners naturally lose customers to the cheaper newcomer and tension rises. Sometimes a city will try to stop Uber, but it’s like trying to stop a rainstorm with coffee mugs. A few drivers might get fined, but Uber pays their fines, and it’s even more publicity for the business.
Canberra decided to go a different route, bow to the inevitable, address the most frequent objections about unregulated drivers and unsafe cars, and bring in legislation to allow Uber and similar companies to operate legally, hopefully to the mutual benefit of all.
This seems reasonable to me. In the face of apps like Uber, the traditional taxi industry must either find ways to accommodate new technology and new ways of doing things, or be overtaken by events. Some places have seen violence directed against Uber drivers from taxi drivers, fearful of losing even their lowly-paid jobs. That’s not a good way of dealing with change, and Canberra is at least trying to keep things open and safe for all.
Over the past few months, Uber has been recruiting drivers, checking for criminal records and unsafe drivers, inspecting cars for roadworthiness, talking with the government, holding public information sessions and getting ready to begin operating in Canberra.
That’s only a few days away now, and I’ve been part of the process for a while. I’m intending to be one of the first Uber drivers on the road, and I’ll be blogging all the way.