Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn was hosting a punk rock show celebrating the birthday of Mike Moosehead, one of the city’s most talented musicians. I was not going to miss it, even though the weather was horrible and the city was slow to plow the roads.
Driving cautiously over roads and highways caked with snow that had been churned by traffic to a grim grey slurry, I eventually found my way to Hank’s. I pulled up to the traffic light outside the hearty saloon and prepared to make a turn to look for parking.
Some young men outside the bar looked towards my truck and I thought I recognized them. One of them at least looked like a guy I know from playing in punk bands. They looked like they recognized me and approached me.
“Uber?” said the young man.
“No, sorry,” I said, feeling stupid, though I’m guessing he felt dumber. The cars that are Uber cars are usually newer and have a very clear and recognizable ‘UBER’ or ‘U’ sign in their window.
“Does Uber have pickup trucks?” I asked. The young man didn’t seem to know.
Uber, the online taxi service that allows users to summon and pay for cabs entirely online and without cash, does have pickup trucks, though they are rare in New York.
Being the resident old man in the office where I work, I do not have the Uber app on my smart phone. My wife has used it to secure a ride for her mother when the weather locked our truck under a sheet of ice a while ago. It’s a useful thing to have because you can take the mystery and risk out of whether or not you’ll get a cab. I rarely take cabs and I don’t trust Uber.
Years ago, when I spent more time drinking into the early hours of the morning in bars far from home, I wound up taking a lot more cabs. I enjoyed talking to the drivers, who are usually from a different part of the world, about where they are from and life in the city. I once met a Muslim driver from Pakistan with a long beard and traditional garb who had become an American citizen. He was heartfelt in his frustration at how extremists had come to define his religion in his adopted home.
The migration to online taxi hailing means trouble for New York’s yellow cabs, and the yellow cab drivers have only themselves to blame. Every New Yorker can recount a litany of horror stories about the difficulty in hailing and getting decent service from yellow cabs.
Yellow cabs will cherry pick who they take. Even though this is illegal, they will drive around with their ‘out of service’ lights on to avoid regulations. I have successfully hailed a yellow cabs only to have them drive away when they thought I had too much luggage. Drivers have been known to overcharge, tamper with meters, and otherwise cheat and nickel and dime their fares.
Online taxi service is a concept whose time is long overdue. We can rent cars online and buy plane and bus tickets online. There’s no reason calling a cab online shouldn’t be commonplace for everyone, and in a few short years I have no doubt it will be standard operating procedure.
Where Uber goes wrong however, is in its pricing. It runs pricing on a strict supply and demand basis and gouges its prices through “surge pricing,” so when demand goes up, pricing can go through the roof. Because the service is not cash-based and is charged to the customer’s credit card, people can be charged exorbitant amounts of money for what would normally be an inexpensive cab ride. Recently Uber quickly raised its prices in Sydney, Australia during a recent terrorist hostage standoff. The fare algorithm that Uber uses does not adjust for human decency.
Like other New York traditions, hailing a taxi on the street is one that is fading. Nostalgia will keep it alive for a good while longer, but technology has found a more reliable way to get people in and out of cabs. Like other New York traditions, there is good and bad about its loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless.