SACRAMENTO — Many people are familiar with "Luddites," those early 19th century British textile workers who vandalized modern looms and other innovative, time-saving machinery that they feared would put them out of business – or reduce the value of their work.
I'm not the first writer to notice the resemblance between the original Luddite behavior and the actions of angry Parisian taxicab drivers, who earlier this year vandalized a car owned by a driver for Uber, the innovative ride-share service founded in San Francisco. One Salon writer expressed concern about the rise of such competition and even quoted a Marxist professor defending Luddism.
But the rest of us know it's hard to halt competitors with a crowbar. Uber, and other companies such as Lyft (the one with pink mustaches on cars) and Sidecar, are not exactly cabs. If they were, they would face an array of restrictions. Taxicabs are tightly controlled by the government, which is why it can cost $1 million in New York to get a "medallion" that authorizes a cab to roam the city's streets.
I tried Uber recently outside San Francisco. (It operates in 34 countries and many U.S. cities, including San Diego.) A friend indicated on his app that he wanted a ride. Within moments, he had a text confirmation and was given the license plate of the car and a contact number for the driver. It was stress-free and the car arrived promptly.
The driver was friendly; the car was new. The fee and tip were deducted from my friend's on-file credit card, so there was no fumbling with cash or card readers. Going back, we took Uber Black and rode in a Town Car. It was nice.
Basically, these "ride-sharing" services do an end-run around the taxicab cartel and their arrays of rules and limits, but American Luddites haven't attacked cars. They have lobbied governments to limit the competition, which is designed to achieve the same result.
The cabbies' mantra is safety – something that has gained ground after, sadly, an Uber driver killed a girl in San Francisco, although he didn't have a customer at the time. The CEO of an Atlanta cab company argued that tragedy was an example of "the obvious and overwhelming risks to public safety" as he advocated a Georgia law to regulate these ride services. But one need only search on Google, "taxicab" and "fatal crash," to see that accidents are not limited to "unregulated" ride services.
Actually, it's wrong to use the word "unregulated." Uber and others are examples of how a market more deftly regulates things than bureaucrats. Note recent news about how federal safety regulators for years ignored dozens of reports about a potentially fatal flaw in some General Motors ignition switches. It took a few months after the tragedy for these ride services to institute new insurance "gap" rules covering drivers who might not be on assignment.
I've met nice cabbies with nice cars over the years, but that's not always the case. You pay your money, leave the cab smelling like an air freshener and forget about it. Ride services require drivers to have nice, newer cars. They fire drivers whose online ratings fall below a certain level – and that inspires a high level of customer service.
Some riders have complained about Uber's surge pricing. Isn't it better to pay more during rush hour in a rain storm and actually get a ride than have a theoretically low price while standing in a puddle trying to flag a cab? Americans have become so accustomed to having everything regulated that they've ceased to see how freedom might operate – how a company eager to make money by pleasing customers can achieve better results. And if you don't like Uber, use a competitor's service or take a cab.
California gets a bad rap for its zeal to regulate. But our regulators have been reasonable with these new ride-share companies. After clamping down in 2012, the California Public Utilities Commission later voted unanimously to recognize them and has focused mainly on legitimate insurance issues.
But other states and cities have been less friendly. Seattle just capped the number of cars that these services can use. And in France, Uber drivers must wait 15 minutes before answering a call, which is a good reminder that these laws aren't about protecting public safety but about hobbling the competition. The Luddites would be proud of the French, but, then again, I don't know many people who still wear hand-sewn garments.