My Complete 180 on Uber

 

I have done a complete 180 with regards to my opinion of Uber. I used to mildly dislike them. From various conversations with Uber drivers, and from a few videos and articles, I have become aware of an employment structure that essentially exploits drivers to offer competitive pricing for transportation. Uber is part of the sharing economy, a trend in business that shares everything but liability. The whole concept of the sharing economy is suspicious to me in principle. Companies profit off non-employees who are willing to use their own property, skills, or expertise to make a bit of extra cash, and refuse to pay much more than a commission for it. And if something goes awry, it’s not their problem.

Moreover, Uber is particularly nefarious in its quite obvious goal of taking giant losses in order to aggressively battle for market share amidst rapid worldwide expansion. I’ve always seen them as the Wal-Mart of transportation—not necessarily in the quality of the service, but in the strategy of undercutting all the competition until the competitors have to close shop, thereby leaving a monopoly.

In the same way Midwestern towns have lost their thriving main streets to Wal-Mart, with communities being deprived of options in both shopping and employment, Uber could very well become the only taxi business in most cities, leaving riders and drivers alike with little else to turn to. If Uber succeeds in the way Wal-Mart has in monopolizing markets, they will be able to set the conditions and pricing for transportation in those markets.

In essence, my suspicions towards Uber are motivated by a long and deeply felt need to defend the “little guy”—that is, currently existing taxi drivers who pay the licensing fees (which Uber bypasses) as well as the drivers that Uber refuses to pay benefits to. These suspicions have made me wary of Uber, and thus reluctant to use their services on principle alone.

And so, when Uber came to Chiang Mai two months ago, I was leery. Chiang Mai doesn’t need more American corporations diluting their beautiful culture and atmosphere with mediocrity and greed, I thought.

But other expats didn’t share that sentiment. They were all too eager to start using Uber to get around town. And I recently learned why.

My mother came to visit. I don’t normally need fare-based transit, as I have a motorbike that I share with my girlfriend. But with three people now needing transportation, the bike was insufficient (we weren’t about to do it the Thai way and ride three to a bike). So I started talking to tuk-tuk drivers. My mom and I wanted to go to Sunday Night Walking Street, the night market that extends from Tha Pae Gate. From her hotel, it was a 4-km trip. At 9pm.

So I asked a tuk-tuk driver how much. 180 baht. I’d taken tuk-tuks from my girlfriend’s bar to my apartment—an 8-km trip—for that price. So clearly this was negotiable. “One hundred twenty,” I said in Thai.

“One hundred eighty,” he repeated, in English.

“That’s too expensive,” I said in Thai. “One hundred fifty.”

He waved me off. “Traffic jam,” he said.

Bullshit, I thought. But it was getting late and this was the only Sunday night my mother would be in town, and I really wanted her to experience Sunday Night Walking Street. “Fine,” I said.

At nine o’clock at night, the only traffic we hit was literally right in front of our destination. I angrily paid the bullshitter his fare and we got out.

We enjoyed walking around Sunday Night Walking Street, and some time between 10 and 11pm many vendors were starting to close up. So we went back to Tha Pae Gate, where tuk-tuks were lined up. This time I wasn’t being had. I went to the furthest tuk-tuk from the gate. He quoted me 200 baht. “Too expensive,” I said in Thai.

“Traffic jam,” he said.

“No traffic,” I said. “One hundred fifty.”

“Traffic jam. One hundred eighty.”

“Fine.” I should have walked away. I knew better. There were 10 other tuk-tuks around and I probably could have worked my way into a tuk-tuk for 120. But maybe not. The problem was this was high season. With so many tourists, most tuk-tuk drivers know they’ll get the fare they’re asking for eventually.

Four kilometers and zero traffic later, and we were pulling up to my mom’s hotel. I got out and looked at the tuk-tuk driver. “So much traffic,” I said.

He laughed.

“I’ll give you one hundred fifty, and no more.”

“Up to you,” he smiled.

The next day, we needed another ride. It was a gorgeous day and I thought my mother would enjoy a walk around the moat. The northwestern corner of the moat—the corner nearest to her hotel—was only a kilometer and a half away. Surely a tuk-tuk ride wouldn’t be too much. So we talked to one in front of her hotel. “One hundred fifty,” he said.

“Huh? No! Only one kilometer!”

My girlfriend was with us this time. She started working her native tongue, negotiating him down. Here we go, this will get us a cheaper ride. We’re Thai now.

Body language wasn’t looking promising, though. “He says there’s heavy traffic,” my girlfriend finally told me.

“It’s always heavy traffic with these guys,” my mom retorted.

“It’s ok,” I said. “We’ll take Uber.”

I had hoped hearing the name of the newest competitor in town would manipulate him into acquiescing to our will. I was wrong. “Up to you,” he said, and went back to sleep.

My mother was flabbergasted. “He’s gonna let us walk?”

“He’ll get one-fifty from some sucker. Not us, but someone will pay it eventually,” I said.

This is the way of the tuk-tuk driver. They sit on their ass all day nodding off lazily into profitless slothfulness, and then try to make up for it by overcharging naïve tourists for easy trips around the city. They seem to be quite aware at how novel a tuk-tuk ride is for most tourists. The unwary tourist sometimes even squeals with delight at such a nifty way to get around town. And so they pay anything. They don’t know the city, so they believe the line about traffic. And honestly, where else are they going to turn for transportation? Songthaews which charge more? Taxis which are hard to come by? Buses that were all but driven out of Chiang Mai years ago by the tuk-tuk and songthaew mafias…uh…I mean “cooperatives”?

So we got into our first Uber car in Chiang Mai. American corporations are good for at least one thing: consistency. The only difference between Uber Chiang Mai and Uber San Francisco was that this driver was a little shy about speaking English. Otherwise, we rode a clean, semi-luxurious, air-conditioned sedan, driven by a polite and friendly driver who, like her American counterparts, seemed all too pleased with the chance to earn an extra buck or two driving around her own city.

And the fare? A measly 25 baht. I more than doubled the fare with my tip, giving her 60 baht in cash, and giving myself the peace of mind that she was adequately compensated for her efforts.

So let’s do a quick comparison. In Chiang Mai, you can either ride in a welded, uncomfortable motor-trike in the open air, driven by a lazy alcoholic/drug addict, for 150 baht. Or you can ride in a commercially produced vehicle that passed international safety standards in the air-conditioned comfort of the backseat of a sedan, driven by a self-respecting individual who is proud to earn extra money, for 60 baht (if you’re a generous tipper). For a rider, it’s a no-brainer. For an Uber driver, if enough people pay it forward like I do, it’s also a win.

Since that pivotal day, I’ve taken five Uber trips. Every single one was a positive experience that cost me a fraction of what tuk-tuks would charge, despite paying 50-100% tips. The drivers all spoke enough English to chat with me at least a little bit.

The last driver spoke enough to discuss global politics. We also talked about the Uber experience, his and mine. He’s putting three daughters through university on a combination of his salary as a bureaucrat and his earnings with Uber. He enjoys Uber so much that he calls it his hobby. I asked him how he could possibly enjoy driving around the city picking up passengers. He replied that he wants to learn to speak English better, and the 10 to 20 tourists a night that he drives around give him ample opportunities to practice. “Instead pay money for tutor, I learn and earn,” he laughed.

We also talked about Uber’s grab at the international scene. I mentioned the taxi strikes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He said the same thing happened in Phuket, and that the tuk-tuk mafia is just as strong in Chiang Mai. “We’ll see how long Uber stays in Chiang Mai,” he said.