It was the Saturday of the Vermont Brewers Festival, and the first session, which runs from noon to four, was just finishing up. The Burlington Waterfront Park was teeming with happy people as I sat parked in my taxi near the ECHO museum looking to grab a fare. I knew from experience that dozens of people would be wanting rides up the hill to the Church Street Marketplace to prolong their merriment, or back to their hotel/Airbnb or home.
I have been pushing the hack in Burlington since the early '80s and know my job inside and out. If you do anything day in and day out for that many years, you pick up a few things along the way. Like, I have learned to show up when events let out, and the Brewers Festival is a biggie.
I saw three people standing by the curb, caught their eye and pointed to them. One responded, "No, we're good," and went back to meditating on his cellphone. A few minutes later, an unmarked vehicle pulled up to the trio, and they climbed into the back. As the car pulled away from the curb, I noticed a small sign in the rear window: Uber.
For those of you just awakening from a coma, Uber is a digitally dispatched taxi service founded in San Francisco about nine years ago. Along with some smaller competitors such as Lyft, Uber has upended, disrupted and generally wreaked havoc in the worldwide taxi trade, laying waste to a business model that had flourished probably since the dawn of motorized vehicles. What Amazon did to bookstores, Uber has done to traditional taxis.
As much as I hate Uber with every fiber of my being, I cannot help but give them their props. In a nutshell, the company built a better mousetrap.
The taxi industry circa 2009 was antiquated, out of step with the modern era. If you wanted a ride, you had to either flag a cab on the street (always a touch-and-go scenario) or call up a taxi company to order one. And, as anyone who has ever exercised option two knows, taxi companies often provided questionable customer service. Cabs might arrive late or not at all. Sometimes the cabs that did arrive were quite funky, as was the driver.
Uber revolutionized the taxi delivery system. The whole process happens digitally, including the ordering of the cab, the dispatching of the driver and the payment of the fare. With a workforce consisting of eager drivers using their personal vehicles, the system is crazy efficient and has left the old taxi companies in the dust.
To be sure, there are many bad things about the way Uber has operated. It has been accused of bullying the municipalities in which it sets up shop; it is said to exploit its drivers, who operate entirely at the whim of their corporate overlords; and Uber's founding owner was forced to step down in light of documented incidents of sexual harassment, which contributed to a toxic company culture.
Not to excuse these and other transgressions, but, in the end, you can't argue with success. In a few short years, Uber has grown to a multibillion-dollar enterprise for one reason: People want what they're selling.
Back at the waterfront, I sat there like a potted plant as the Uber hookups happened all around me, again and again. A few years earlier, every one of these people would have taken a traditional cab. It was as if my taxi were invisible, as if I were invisible. As you can imagine, this is deflating to the spirit, not to mention the wallet. According to a Seven Days investigative piece last October, in the three short years that Uber has been active in Burlington, it has captured about 80 percent of the market.
Prior to the arrival of Uber, a couple of dozen independent cabs regularly worked the downtown streets on weekend nights. With any luck, an industrious cabbie could walk away with $200 or more on a decent shift. Nowadays, if you find two or three indies working downtown, that's a lot, and I'm afraid these diehards are fueled by wishful thinking.
Alas, the halcyon days of random people hailing cabs are slowly drawing to an end. Aside from a few righteous holdouts — and perhaps those too hammered to successfully deploy the Uber app on their phones — these customers have been captured by Uber. Absent this once-steady source of revenue, most of the hardworking independent drivers are now dependent on the airport queue for nearly all of their income. These good folks, many of them recent immigrants to the country, are hurting.
However, fear not for this humble hackie. Like Gloria Gaynor and cockroaches, I will survive. Over decades, I have developed a robust stable of loyal customers, and that's allowed me to resist this modern-day invasion of the Visigoths. And Burlington still boasts one innovative and nimble taxi fleet, Green Cab, which has also held its own against the onslaught.
Still hunkered down at the waterfront, I refused to abandon my post until I scored at least one measly fare. After a depressing half hour, a woman and man with three young kids walked up to me and asked if I was available. Halle-freakin'-lujah!
"We were about to order an Uber," the woman said, "but we saw you first."
"Can you take us to the Best Western?" the man chimed in.
"As a matter of fact, I can," I replied with a smile. "Jump in."
Neither the parents nor the kids appeared buzzed on craft beer, so I deduced they weren't in town for the Brewers Festival. I'm sharp that way.
As we got under way, I asked, "So, what brings you folks to Vermont?"
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.