Folks who follow this column have known for years my disdain for Uber, the techie phenom that has cost hundreds of thousands of workers full-time, family supporting jobs and replaced them with part-timers who are willing to work without benefits like health insurance and pension contributions.
It's a prime example of why the rich in this country continue to get richer and the poor keep holding the bag.
Yet a new generation of urbanites continues to embrace and swear by this glorified taxi service and others like it that have sprung up in recent years, particularly in the nation's larger cities. In many of them these businesses have avoided regulations that established cab companies have had to abide by forever.
I'll never forget the day that a brash, nattily dressed, quick-talking Uber PR guy from California came to visit my office to tell me how stupid it was for Mayor Paul Soglin to insist that Uber needed to abide by regulations in order to operate in Madison.
When I asked him if it wasn't fair to require his company to compete on a level playing field with the taxis, he insisted Uber wasn't out to replace taxis, but was only providing a service to those who wouldn't ordinarily use them. Try telling that to the cabbies who have either lost their jobs in the past few years or were forced to declare bankruptcy if they owned their own business.
I've been told several times that my disgust with Uber (and that doesn't even include the sexist and high-handed management culture for which the corporation is known) shows how out of touch I am with the march of technology. Taxis are being replaced like horses were by the automobile, I'm told. I'm a typical old guy who can't face up to the fact that times change. Yes, and while cabbies and others lose jobs, a handful of young instant millionaires are created, the John D. Rockefellers and J.P. Morgans of the 21st century.
So it was with a certain delight that I read a recent guest column in The New York Times by Steven Hill, the author of the book "Raw Deal: How the 'Uber Economy' and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers."
According to Hill, it turns out that Uber is doing more than just replacing full-time jobs with cheaper part-time ones. For the young people who are smitten by Uber's supposed convenience, they might be wise to take a look at what this modern transportation option is doing to our big city downtowns, the environment and the future of public transportation, for starters.
Hill insists that Uber customers don't realize that the company subsidizes the cost of many rides, a likely major factor in Uber's annual losses surging from $2.8 billion in 2016 to $4.5 billion last year. This seemingly nonsensical business plan is really Uber's way of using its deep pockets from its massive stock offerings to drive out competition, just like Standard Oil did to eliminate its competitors back in the early 1900s. (Hey, Wisconsin legislators, that's why Wisconsin still has — and needs — a minimum mark-up law.)
Worse, though, is how Uber is impacting city traffic. The low fares are encouraging people to abandon public transportation in favor of calling Uber, adding to street congestion (New York has been particularly affected), spewing more pollutants into the atmosphere, and hurting revenues of public transportation systems that need money to improve and grow.
"Uber passengers and public transportation users alike now find themselves stuck in heavy traffic for longer because of what's called 'Uber congestion,'" Hill writes.
Rather than reduce the miles driven by automobiles, it has actually increased them, Hill insists, adding, "From an environmental standpoint, Uber is taking us backward."
Hill contends that ride-sharing services like Uber could potentially add something positive to our transit options, but only if they are regulated properly. That includes a limit on the number of ride-sharing cars that can be put on the road at once, a prohibition on subsidizing fares, and requirements that their vehicles be subject to the same laws as traditional taxis.
They should also be required to share their data with regulators, including info on their drivers so they can more easily contact each other and organize collectively if they choose for better pay and maybe even some benefits.
For sure, Uber represents change. But once again we're reminded that change isn't always for the better.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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