Tag: Launch

One week on

One week on

“Ask me in a week’s time,” I told one journalist at last week’s launch of Uber in Canberra, “and I might not be so full of the company line.”
Here it is, seven full days later. I’ve driven (almost) every day. I’ve kept records of fares and kilometres, fuel, expenses, times, everything I think is relevant and plugged all the numbers into a spreadsheet which crunches the numbers.
The time and money are important, but you know, the real payoff came about five this morning, when two of my passengers knelt down in front of my cab, their hands clasped as if in prayer and their eyes full of happiness.
Yesterday was rainy. Heavy rain. Mud and rubbish, leaves and tree branches on the road. My poor little Golf was looking pretty seedy on the outside, and definitely needed a vacuum inside. Today I decided to start the day around 0430, when nobody would be around, run the car through the wash, clean it up, maybe get a couple of airport jobs later.
I’d barely left home when I got a job. Turned out to be the Maccas in Braddon, a few blocks away, and four very merry young men climbed in after a night on the town.
They directed me towards Gungahlin, a nice long fare. One of them had a free ride credit and asked if it would be honoured. Those things are run by the app, and I have nothing to do with it, but so long as the passenger enters the code correctly, Uber will pay for the ride.
“Hey, it says we can play music!” the chap riding shotgun said. By tradition, the front seat passenger is the captain, but pays the fare.
“Sure,” I said, “I just set it up. It works through Spotify and goes through my phone into the aux socket.”
I indicated the cable running from my phone on the dash to the auxiliary sound input, which for some odd reason is located in the centre armrest console.
I love it when passengers choose the music. I was pretty sure my Mozart piano concertos weren’t going to cut it with this bunch, and much as I love them, I was getting a leeetle weary of the tinkling ivories.
My passenger selected some songs and bands I’d never heard of, but they sang along happily as we headed north up Northbourne Avenue, and they were jaunty tunes, to be sure.
And I smiled along. I love having happy people in my cab.
I’m sorry to say that Canberra Cabs, my former outfit, copped a lot of rude comments from my passengers. I suspect that their current drivers do not appreciate jaunty cheerful music as much as they could.
We all smiled and laughed and it was the best ride of my Uber career. What a buzz!
At the end of the trip, high fives and fist bumps all round. These guys had partied all night and were aiming for more.
And then I noticed two of my back seat passengers kneeling down before the headlights, in attitudes of worship. I killed the lights before I blinded them entirely, but bless their joyous hearts, they made my day.
That was the high point, but it didn’t cool down much after that. For nearly five hours, I was in constant motion. I actually pulled up beside the vacuum cleaner, but got a new job before I could put my coins in.
Some wonderful passengers. Some were content to listen to Mozart, some wanted to chat – and we had some wonderful conversations – two needed to get to the chemist for painkillers, one chap rang me to see if I could accept his bike in the Golf. Tight squeeze, but once we took the front wheel off, we squeezed it in.
A repeat customer, by the way.
I love my job.
I actually had a few minutes to rest, and I chose the lakefront area where Uber had launched in Canberra exactly a week earlier. The clouds hung low over the capital, joggers and cyclists and rowers radiated energy, Mozart soothed my restless mind, and I wondered if the weeks ahead would be as busy as this first one.
I have no doubt, to be honest. About half my passengers have used Uber elsewhere and couldn’t wait for Uber to hit Canberra.
And the other half were first-timers, hesitantly trying it out. I’m confident they’ll be back.

Lake run
Lake run
Back in the saddle again

Back in the saddle again

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to have a fare so soon. I must have accidentally clicked the accept button or something. But there it was, a few minutes after launch time, and not only was I not entirely ready to go, I was on the wrong side of the lake.
I’d gone out that morning and bought a quadruple adaptor for my auxiliary power socket. I needed one socket for my GPS, one for my phone, one for the dashcam, and one to offer to my passengers for recharging their devices. I’d sort of squashed it into the centre console and it was a bit of a tangle of cables. I’d sort it out later, but for the moment it wasn’t quite the professional image I intended.
I also hadn’t found the best spot for my phone mount. In fact I was in the process of sorting that out when the fare fell into my lap.
And my phone stayed on my lap for a few hours, because I was too busy to find time to park and set up the phone mount.
Uber was all of a sudden the flavour of the month, and everyone wanted to test out the system.
My first fare was a pick up near Braddon, going to the airport. A little unfamiliarity with the app, and I misjudged a turn, leading to a u-turn and delay. I imagined my passenger tapping her foot and tutting as she watched my antics on her phone; on being assigned a car and driver, a passenger gets to watch them get closer on the map.
But she said when I collected her that I was spot on, no she hadn’t been looking at the app, if I’d arrived any earlier, she wouldn’t have had her bags quite ready.
I handed her the seatbelt, closed her door and began my first Uber drive. Hers, too. There were a lot of first-timers using the app that day.
I had seven fares in the three hours I was on the system. I stopped for lunch and coffee, and to attach my phone mount, and I had to collect my wife from work, so it was a very short day, compared to the twelve hour taxi shifts I’d had in the past.
Busy shift, good passengers, familiar work. Three trips to the airport, two to Parliament House, two to other places. Just regular taxi work, really. I rated all my passengers five stars and three were good enough to give me a similar rating.
Two passengers cancelled within seconds of making a call. I guess they were just testing the app and went a bit too far. I later read that one passenger called up a Uber car and then realised they hadn’t a destination in mind. They ended up making a few circuits of Parliament House and heading back home!
Getting familiar with the app was the biggest challenge. A doddle, really, compared to the horrific experience I’d had on my first day, years ago, as a cabbie, juggling the meter, the computer, the radio and the credit card machine.
All in all, I enjoyed the day’s work. About $30 an hour, less tax and expenses. I’ll never get rich on this.
But riches aren’t judged by a bank balance. Not in my book. The currency I value most are smiles, and I made a happy profit there.

Five star driver
Five star driver
Uber to the World!

Uber to the World!

Chief Minister
Chief Minister

It’s odd, but for me the most interesting part of a press conference isn’t the carefully-planned speeches of the celebrities. It’s the way that the cameramen and journalists operate, seeming to work together, but in reality fighting their own little battles to get the best shots, ask the best questions, tell the best stories.
All the TV networks were there, the main print outlets, a few locals. Including Charlotte Harper of The Riot ACT, a blog dealing with the Australian Capital Territory and surrounds. Not quite Huffington Post calibre, it’s a popular and lively forum for locals to discuss everything from garage sales to Federal politics. I love it.
Uber had a few people with cameras as well.
Canberra has a difficult transport situation. Most of the city was built in the Seventies and Eighties, when cars and petrol were cheap. It sprawled out over the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee valleys, and, heavily funded by the federal government, it became the ultimate suburban paradise of quarter acre house blocks, schools, playing fields, and parkland, all linked by impressive motorways.
After a while, the madness of continued sprawl set in, the Feds handed over to a new Territory government, funded by the inhabitants, and new suburbs became cramped and unpleasant, remote from the centre, amenities and roads kept to the bare minimum.
There’s talk of glorious public transport networks, but nothing ever happens. Roads are eventually and grudgingly built, a decade after the need becomes screamingly obvious. Traffic becomes more and more congested, people become less happier.
The problem is that Canberra occupies a huge footprint, and the population density is so low that public transport doesn’t work very well. We’d need another five million people on the existing footprint to make a proper metro transport system effective.
People need cars to get around, cars cost a lot, and once you’ve got one, you might as well use it to get the full value. Especially if you have children to get to school, shopping to do, people to see. The bus network is so sprawling and infrequent that it would take forever to do everything by public transport.
Taxis cost a fortune, and this is where Uber comes in. Getting costs down – by utilising the spare time of those with nothing better to do, and leveraging that massive shared investment in cars – moves Canberra closer to the point where residents can have the convenience and flexibility of a family car without the cost of actually owning one.
Most of the time, a car sits idle in the garage, or taking up space in a carpark. Or clogging up the roads. Driving is a skill that takes time to learn, must be practised with attention, and is extremely expensive when things go wrong. Reducing the number of roads and cars and drivers would pay enormous benefits, but Canberra, like most everywhere else, is trapped in a situation where the alternative is too bloody expensive.
There’s talk of a light rail system, but it’s foolish to imagine that the same people who don’t use the bus network now are going to switch to trams at a higher cost.
The government approach has been typically bone-headed. Raise costs for motorists, reduce speed limits, make parking more difficult, force them onto the public transport. All this does is make people hate the government. Nobody in their right mind is going to trudge their family a kilometre through the freezing winter or the baking summer to get to the bus stop to go to the tram to get to the city centre to go somewhere else.
Canberra is a city built around motorcars and that’s that.
The politicians made their speeches, the Uber guys spoke of opportunities, and we drivers grew bored.
At least until the speeches stopped and then everyone wanted a piece of us. Microphones were thrust in our faces, camera crews hijacked our cars – I had the pleasure of driving a young lady journalist around with cameras in the back seat, stuck on the windshield, poking in the windows, and it was grand fun until noon, when everyone packed up and went off to write their stories and edit their video.
And the Uber service was supposed to start at noon. I packed my camera away, opened up the Uber Partner app, paused a moment and hit the “Go online” button.
And the thing beeped at me. I had a job!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not even feigning interest

Token driver

Token driver

The launch on the lake
The launch on the lake

I stepped back, took a wide shot. My little mirrorless looked like a toy compared to some of the big guns around. Looked like photographers were either professionals with ten thousand dollar cameras, or amateurs with smartphones. I was the middle ground.
A fabulous day. Bright and warm, Canberra with the big iconic buildings, the artificial lake, the long sightlines, the feeling of optimism and energy. What a buzz!
Flies were buzzing, too. I was kindly given a spritz of Aerogard from a nearby Segway kiosk, but most of the people were unprepared, and I’ll bet if you checked the footage carefully, some of the honchos in front of the cameras were dauntlessly munching down on blowflies as they put out their corporate or political spiels.
In the photo above, check out the cool young woman in the black t-shirt (hashtag #yeswecanberra) wearing the mirrorshades. She’s flanked by the other two drivers at the launch, Ulli from Switzerland, and Tom, who got the honour of taking the Chief Minister for the first official Uber ride in Canberra.
The hot blonde is not important, except to help me point out the drivers, but she is part of the Uber team. From comments passed, I don’t think they all work together in a big corporate headquarters, but rather log in from around the country (and the world) in some post-modern virtual work environment.
I’ll admit it. I’m impressed by the way these young men and women are shaking up the world. The promises of technology, the linked-in teams, the sheer power of the Internet: we’re seeing marvels created from nothing. AirBnb, Wikipedia, WordPress – these are things that are essentially nothing much but a few clever people engaging the coöperative behaviour of the rest of us to seize the day and make an impact.
AirBnB, which I’ve used a few times, is one of those internet things which have taken travel out of the main street travel agency and into the hands of anyone with an iPad. Wikipedia is kind of old hat nowadays, but it is really a marvel of how thousands of nerds can find ways to work together to create something incredibly useful. And WordPress, well, it lets nonentities like me find a global audience. Every now and then some blogger stumbles on some injustice, some magic moment, some sweet insight, and they are famous.
More prosaically, it lets all of us in the wired world see life through the eyes of people like ourselves. Or different in every way. I know a homeless guy living in Central Park, a pair of grey nomads roaming the world, a librarian in Oxfordshire, a pilot somewhere over the Middle East, a lady photographer in the Canary Islands – all blogging their happy way through life.
People like us. Take a look at those two drivers. Ulli on the left is another hot blonde who took the opportunity to don some Uber clobber. Out of Switzerland – St Moritz was mentioned – she’s lived in Canberra for years, knows everyone in the arts scene. She bought a brand new car for her Uber career.
Tom is a younger version of myself, who really should find a driving cap to cover up his bald spot out in the hot sun.
All three of us drivers were people like us. People like Canberra’s population of public servants. People who know the town, know the language, not exactly scrambling for every buck.
Someone in the Ubercloud probably picked us to be the public face of Uberdrivers in Canberra. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for this modern way of getting people from A to B and I think it will eventually transform our road-dominated cities into more livable places where people don’t need to own cars, but will have the convenience of a car magically appearing on demand.
But the vast majority of Uber drivers in Canberra won’t be locals of European ancestry. Not unless a whole bunch of retired public servants decide to make a few extra bucks with their cars and swamp the Uber website with applications. Which might well happen.
Most of the Uber drivers are exactly the same demographic makeup as Canberra’s taxidrivers. Young men born in Asia. And not a single one invited to the launch.
I’m sure there were sound corporate reasons for this, but I thought it just a little bit unfair on the people who are going to be doing all the real work. From what I’ve seen, these drivers have enthusiasm and energy to burn, and some of them drive cars that make my little silver Golf or the average Ford or Toyota taxi look boring.
You want a ride in a sapphire blue V8 driven by a guy who could be a Bollywood star? He’s out there, and he’s not going to be playing Mozart piano concertos on his CD system. Uber’s definitely a lot more colourful than whitebread old geezers like me.

U-Day

U-Day

Switched on and plugged in
Switched on and plugged in

For Uber, launching in a new city must be like Starbucks opening a new coffeeshop. They’ve done it hundreds of times before. They know how to work the media, how to offer swag and codes for free rides, how to get the thing happening.
I was at the War Memorial yesterday when the call came. “Would you like to be at the Canberra launch tomorrow? Maybe answer a few questions from journalists?”
Of course I would. See how the thing was done, get to watch the performers. Uber’s general manager in Australia, the ACT Chief Minister and a host of media people. Maybe I’d get a few shots of cars and celebrities.
I’ve seen media conferences before. This one was notable for the cool Uber staffers in t-shirts, sunnies, logo caps, and smartphones welded to their hands.
These children of the Nineties are nonchalant and confident. They have the future in their hands, they are surfing the waves of trending tweets, they are taking the ride to the future.
For this old cabbie, well into his seventh decade, it looks like the 21st century is moving into cyberspace. Passengers and cabs, meters and streets, money clips and making change; all old hat. The future has less “stuff” in it, fewer things to lay hands on, more intangibles, more cloud, more dreams.
The cars, the drivers, the passengers are physical. Getting people from A to B, that doesn’t change. The taxi ranks, the call centres taking bookings, the money – all gone. All somewhere nebulous. Maybe in all those smartphones, maybe in some bank of servers in North Dakota.
This is history being made before my eyes. Canberra is the first capital city in the world to legalise Uber. Now part of the landscape, not just some nuisance thumbing its nose at the law. Maybe in other cities in other places, they’ve held press conferences with heads of government. But they’ve been denouncing Uber as unregulated, illegal, unsafe.
Here, open arms. No sense in trying to stem the flowing tide, I guess. Canberra is aiming for a level playing field, consistent with safety and efficiency. The existing taxi industry will have to move to match Uber. You’d think, with the advantage of a significant local presence stretching back generations, they’d have the game sewn up, and a few blow-ins from San Francisco wouldn’t get a look in.
But no. The taxi industry, mostly old fogeys like myself, would like to see change kept to a minimum. Maybe wind the clock back a bit.
Hah. Fat chance.