UberX: Innovation or Anarchy?

A Look at the Pros and Cons of Montreal’s New Ridesharing App

The Uber tide has swept through London, Paris and New York after its conception in San Francisco and is now making headlines here in Montreal. The ridesharing service has evaded permanent bans in Frankfurt and elsewhere as it courts tax-related controversies.

“Uber doesn’t pay their taxes; they’re circumventing regulations,” said Martha Karounis, a daytime dispatcher at Atlas Taxi for 25 years. “It’s like Jack and Jill or you and I starting a milk company and keeping all the money for ourselves. It’s anarchy.”

Montreal is on the verge of stepping up its fight against Uber, as groups in Toronto and Vancouver have done.

The UberX platform essentially circumvents the middleman so crucial to traditional taxi services, at an expense of 20 per cent of the taxi fare (which goes towards their Uber insurance coverage). Uber claims to connect a user with “a driver in minutes.”

As the UberX program, which connects users with rideshares not affiliated with taxi companies, becomes ever more popular, the question begs to be asked: do we prefer our safety to several extra bucks in our pocket?

How safe are journeys with registered “black cab” drivers anyway, whose back seats we sprawl across in our hazy states as we clutch the best part of our Saturday night: the polystyrene-enveloped poutine?

“Why should we pay provincial taxes for rideshares just because taxi drivers have always had to?” asked Adel, an UberX driver. “The state just wants their piece of the pie.”

To become a registered taxi driver in Montreal, applicants must go through a procedure of certification which lasts approximately a month and costs around $64.80, according to the Montreal Taxi Bureau spokesperson we spoke to.

The procedure consists of several computer tests to obtain licenses from both the Societé de l’assurance automobile du Québec and the Montreal Taxi Bureau.
“You tell me if that’s too much red tape,” said Michael Monfared, nighttime dispatcher at Atlas Taxi.

“The notion that anyone can become a taxi driver is unfair. Being a taxi driver is an investment and the fact that UberX drivers receive no training has created a situation where a disaster is waiting to happen,” Monfared said.

“It will take something dreadful to occur for people to realise how dangerous UberX is. Hopefully it will just be someone getting a nosebleed.”

In order to get a better sense of UberX, I accompanied my flatmate on a journey with a driver who is usually a full-time engineer but does UberX at night for kicks.

The experience was far from the “anarchy” described by those in the established taxi business. The driver told us to take our time and waited five minutes for us to come out before helping us deliver our vegetables. The service we received went above and beyond the average taxi ride, for perhaps half the price.

Nevertheless, as we continued to use UberX we found that the drivers, although all fairly nice, were not especially competent.

When The Link’s masthead cashed in a free courtesy journey, our driver caused a minor traffic congestion by stopping in the middle of a busy road to pick us up. This occurred despite his previous five years’ experience as a taxi driver.

It’s generally quite obvious that UberX drivers are not professionals. They get us from A to B better than I could—but then again I did fail my driving theory exam thrice.

The prevailing thought was summed up by Adel, who took us from the village bar L’escalier to another trendy venue. “The taxi industry has become stagnant and in need of development and innovation; UberX’s innovating zeal will oblige the taxi driver to innovate too,” he said.

However, one Uber driver named Hasan implored us not to use UberX. “It’s unfair competition,” he said. “Taxi drivers are being undermined by other drivers who do not deliver the same security that we provide.”

The Montreal Taxi Bureau declined to comment on the issue, but said they endorsed the recent comments of Montreal mayor Denis Coderre on the issue. “Right now if they don’t respect the rules, yes it’s illegal, of course it’s illegal,” Coderre said this week.

“If you are to engage in commercial activities then you must respect the law, such as the minimum provincial fare, something Uber is not doing currently,” the Bureau’s representative paraphrased Coderre as saying. UberX drivers pay little attention to Coderre’s rhetoric.

Parfait, who has been driving for UberX for the past week, told us that Coderre declared it illegal because “its something that’s new. Many young people have downloaded the application and authorized taxi companies have [new] competition.” Is opposition to UberX a symptom of conservatism and the state’s compulsive desire to tax and regulate? Or is it just about protecting jobs from unruly competitors?

Either way, Uber is a byproduct of our get-it-now consumer society that seeks to provide us with convenience at every juncture. One does not want to scrabble for change or mentally calculate the tip needed for a traditional driver. Uber is not going away anytime soon. It’s doubling its revenue every six months, and may diversify its business too.

Just as taxi drivers are motivated by economic factors, so too are we, impoverished students tiptoeing our way through the advent of austerity. Why wouldn’t we use Uber if it’s cheaper and more convenient?

Unfortunately Uber was “unable to accommodate” The Link’s request for an interview, though they did express thanks for “reaching out.” Perhaps they themselves could “reach out” and diversify their business to include those of us without an iPhone 3G package.

If it’ll take a trip in an Uber vehicle for you to make up your mind about the company, you can always oblige their attempt to win student’s favour by using the promo code SOH2014 to receive a free journey of up to $30. Just remember to buckle up.

This article originally appeared in Volume 35, Issue 12, published November 11, 2014.