When Alex Proud wrote an article in praise of taxi service Uber, he wasn’t prepared for the fierce backlash from London cabbies. So he decided to meet them face to face…
Wow. Talk about a response.
Normally, when I’m feeling a bit too big for my boots, I go on TripAdvisor and read the reviews of my venues. TripAdvisor’s great. It’s where people who tried to blackmail you into giving them a free meal (“or I’ll write a nasty review”) carry out their threats. It’s where the punters who have no understanding of the restaurant-customer relationship vent their grievances. It’s where customers can write 700 words on how it’s your fault they chose a medium wine when what they wanted was bone dry. And, in my experience, it’s almost totally unmoderated. A digital confederacy of dunces.
Anyway, unfair though all this is, bad TripAdvisor reviews are nothing compared to the negative feedback I got for the piece I recently wrote on Uber, the app-based taxi service. In a nutshell, I said that Uber was great and that London’s black cabbies should stop whining and suck it up.
Nothing could have prepared me for the cabbies’ reaction. Talk about being hauled over the virtual coals. The comments, tweets and Facebook posts I got… it was like having a thousand iffy TripAdvisor reviews in one day.
But actually, it wasn’t. While the cabbies’ reactions were often pretty angry and nasty, they differed from TripAdvisor in one crucial way. When you contact TripAdvisor to get them to take down blatantly unfair reviews, they usually tell you to go whistle, if they acknowledge you at all. But when I engaged with the taxi drivers, they said, “Let’s meet up and talk and about this”.
I’m really glad we did. It made me realise that online, everything seems black and white. It’s trolling all the way down until one of you says the other is worse than Hitler. But, when you meet most people in the flesh, you realise they’re quite nice. You see that even if their views differ from yours, they have a point and that perhaps the gulf between you is a single step rather than the unbridgeable chasm you thought it was. Before you know it, you’re chatting away and the world a better, less shouty place.
For my part, I’m now happy to hold my hands up and admit that I got parts of it wrong. I still think Uber is a very good service, but I over-simplified the issues and failed to appreciate that the cab drivers have some very legitimate concerns. For that, I’m sorry.
I actually learned quite a lot too. It’s very easy to say that the black cab drivers’ complaining about TFL’s attitude to Uber is the same as black cab drivers complaining about Uber. Actually, they’re not the same. In fact, the cab drivers have all sorts of legitimate sounding grievances against TFL. In order to drive London taxis, cabbies get an “enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB)” background check which goes back three years. Uber drivers get one which goes back six months. As they’re both carrying passengers in exchange for money, it seems reasonable to me that they should get the same CRB.
They also have worries about safety and other concerns about a level playing field. They don’t want to kick Uber out, but they believe that they are being held to higher standards and that TFL doesn’t enforce many of its own rules adequately. This seems a pretty fair complaint to me because TFL’s enforcement of taxi-related regulations, such as touting can be very lax. They’ll only stop it with a police escort which means, in practice, that TFL stops very little touting.
In fact, the cabbies’ anger with TFL is worth a digression. As an organisation, TFL seems to have a weird split personality. When it comes to rail and the Tube, they do a pretty good job, as exemplified by the excellent Overground. But when it comes to roads, they seem to do everything wrong.
It’s not just the cabbies who hate them. Cyclists bemoan the way that bike infrastructure seems to been designed by someone who has never used a bike. Pedestrians hate the way they are treated as second-class citizens and always made to wait. In fact, road-wise, TFL’s attitude can seem stuck around 1985. They’re still trying to please London’s car drivers – a goal which which is pretty much impossible. So please TFL, sort it out. Recognise that bikes, walking, black cabs and a properly regulated Uber are all part of the solution. Private cars are the problem.
Finally, the taxi drivers want Uber to have a central UK office with a human being you can complain to if things go wrong, and they want to ensure Uber pays tax on the profits it makes in the UK. Again, these seems entirely reasonable to me. In fact, as many people have said about organisations like Uber and Amazon, you’re not really an innovator if your key competitive advantage is that you avoid the regulations others are bound by and the taxes they pay.
Not everything I learned from meeting the drivers was about Uber. I realised just how much they care about London. Even if I totally disagreed with them, it would be hard not to be impressed by how passionate they are. Awful, overused word, I know, but they love their jobs and they love their city. For this alone, I’m going to make more of an effort to use black cabs and I’ll even agree that the Knowledge is better than SatNav and worth a premium (although we might still argue over how much that premium should be).
My biggest takeaway though is that you really should meet those you disagree with face to face. Online, you go straight from mild disagreement to Defcon-1. You sit on Twitter or Facebook sniping away at people you dehumanise because you’re perfect and they’re, well, worse than Hitler. But you can’t do any of this if you’re sitting across the table from them because you can see that they’re like you. Besides, in a world where everyone’s shouting about how right they are on Twitter, it feels strangely good to admit you were wrong to a real live person.