Sunday, February 1, 2015

Uber and the Ongoing Eutrophication of the Middle Class

There were three of us in the early 90s, all fathers of toddlers, hanging out one summer evening in an Ottawa backyard. Mike was on his way to becoming a world-renowned neurophysiologist. Dave was explaining how you could never be bored as an ER doctor, never knowing what the next shift would bring you. I was working with a startup that was helping figure out how HTML and the web could be something more than the next Gopher.

And as happened almost every time, talk turned back ten years to the one things all three of us had in common: our cab-driving days in Vancouver. That sushi restaurant on Powell no one knew about, the ride-and-runs, the big-money nights. Given that undergrad degrees led to scholarships and grad school TA jobs, you could say those three cab-driving jobs helped finance seven university degrees. If you didn't mind the hours, knew the city, and could deal with the occasional belligerent drunk customer, it was a great, low-risk job. At the end of an 11-hour shift you kept half the gross on the meter and all the tips. The owner of the cab got the other half, minus the cost of gas, and of course was responsible for the other costs, like insurance, repairs and maintenance, and even that cab license. If you knew what you were doing and didn't have elaborate tastes, you could make one month's rent on a Friday night, put away the Saturday evening earnings for that month's groceries, and the next few shifts during the less lucrative week would cover everything else.

I haven't ridden in an Uber car. I haven't even seen one, as Vancouver is one of the last jurisdictions to stand up to the company. But I hear reports that the Uber cars are nicer than licensed cabs in most cities, that the drivers are more courteous, the service is better, etc. Could be very true - Uber destroys the decent lower-rung jobs that cab-driving offered and replaces it with a business opportunity. You buy a relatively new car. You're responsible for the maintenance and insurance. You pay the gas. Maybe after Uber pays out your cut of the fares, you're ahead. But this is not an opportunity for a budding scientist.  It's more like the kind of business someone with a recent undergrad degree resigns himself to when he can't afford a post-graduate degree, nor find something better to do.

1 comment:

The Adam Growe (Daily) Quiz Show said...

In my original draft, I did mention that the only cab driver I knew prior to becoming one was you. But, I changed the direction of my article, so took a lot out. Not that it was easy money, but as you described it, it sure sounds like there were a lot fewer challenges to making a good buck as a cabbie back then.