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Tyrannosaurus Hackie


Published March 9, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 15, 2016 at 10:17 p.m.

"So, is Uber affecting you guys?"

This is now the No. 1 question my customers ask me, displacing "How's business tonight?"

I've formulated a droll response: "Well, put it this way — I now know what a phone booth feels like."

This is known as "gallows humor" or "whistling past the graveyard." It's a psychological defensive posture. The dynamic is simple: If you don't laugh, you'll cry.

Like a marching, conquering army, the digital revolution proceeds apace. Industry after industry — publishing, music, photography, many retail shops and, yes, the manufacture of phone booths — has been "disrupted," as tech adopters blithely put it. According to the dictionary, that word means "drastically altered or destroyed."

Keen observer of the world that I am, I've taken notice of this process over the past 20 years. Thank goodness I work in a business that can never be done by computers, I naïvely assumed. People will always need cabs, and cabs will always require drivers.

My analysis wasn't incorrect as far as it went, but here's what I missed: How folks access their cabs was ripe for a digital makeover. All it took was the convergence of smartphones, GPS and credit card technology. The brains behind Uber put it all together in one easy little package that has proved nearly irresistible to cab users.

In just a few years, Uber has grown into a $50 billion company with a nearly worldwide presence that has reached the Queen City. We did so much better fending off the avian flu. (Sorry, can't help myself.)

Why has Uber taken the cab industry by storm? That's not simple to answer. Recently, I was watching an episode of "Shark Tank," the reality TV show in which budding entrepreneurs present their business ideas to a panel of millionaires (the "sharks") in hopes of gaining investment money. One of the sharks said something that struck me with its simplicity and clarity. A new business, he asserted, must provide something to the consumer that's either cheaper or easier than what is currently available.

Applying this maxim to Uber, we can ask, what does it offer? As far as I can tell, "cheaper" is not the selling point. The company's rates appear to be comparable to those of regular cabs in a given area. In fact, in periods of high demand, Uber switches to so-called "surge pricing" and charges far more. No, what Uber sells is "easier."

What's easier about it? I think one aspect is paramount. When you order a conventional cab, you need to call up and speak to an actual human being. You have to tell him or her where you are and where you need to go. Good gracious, the discomfort, the awkwardness. Scheduling an Uber pickup happens with the click of a button, no human communication required. No money is exchanged with the Uber driver, nor is there the sticky issue of tipping, as that is supposedly built into the fare.

So, "easy" is the fundamental lure. People in the 21st century — especially younger ones — apparently hate to talk to other people. Talking is messy, scary, human. Hence the ubiquity of text messaging, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Uber may be efficient, but the difference between it and regular cab drivers mostly boils down to the elimination of talking.

Last month, the Burlington City Council gave final approval to new taxi regulations that allow Uber to operate in the city exactly as it wants to operate. Essentially, the company got everything it lobbied for. There was serious opposition on just one issue. A group of council members (God love 'em) offered an amendment regarding the rules that govern driver background checks. They objected to Uber's being allowed to screen its own drivers, as opposed to the city's performing this function. The amendment failed 7-5, and that was that.

I am doing my best to adapt to this new, Uber-infested environment. On any busy night downtown, you can see people on the curb, cellphones out, awaiting the arrival of their Uber cabs. (In fact, some are beginning to employ the word "Uber" instead of "taxi," as in, "Let's take an Uber to the party." The first time I heard this, I had a reflux attack, but I'm better now, thanks.) Every single one of these Uber users represents one less customer for us traditional cabbies, and Uber usage is only increasing, week after week.

I have one major advantage over my younger colleagues. Having plied the Burlington taxi trade for more than 30 years, I have built up a stable of regular, loyal customers who actually don't mind calling me for my service. I daresay they even enjoy talking with me. Can you imagine? But someday, when I retire, these same folks may very well switch to Uber.

So I am officially a dinosaur. I get it, and, after a certain amount of denial and anger, I've even accepted it. It's not all bad. People, especially the kiddies, love dinosaurs. Perhaps someone will create a Jurassic Park for old cabbies one day. That might be nice. I'd work there. But here's the thing about dinosaurs: We all know their ultimate fate.