The Financial Times Limited 2017, on Medium. Uber: the triumph of wallet over spirit: ‘I am quietly pleased London has taken a stand because, frankly, I wasn’t going to’
By Robert Shrimsley
The new greengrocer on our high street seems to have given up the ghost. Like everyone in the area I’m very sad although, obviously, I never used it myself. We working stiffs don’t have time to queue up for our kumquats. But I am frankly disappointed that no one else could be bothered to support a local trader. The fact that I never went in should not be seen as any indication of a lack of support. I had a strong moral commitment to him. I was delighted to live in the kind of place that had its own fruit-and-veg shop. We are all going to feel its loss, at least in a philosophical sense.
To be precise, he’s not so much gone as surrendered his own premises to take space in the florist — but it doesn’t bode well, and I thought of him this week as I digested news of Uber’s London ban and faced up to the horror of life back in overpriced and hard-to-hail black cabs.
The ride-hailing taxi app is the complete opposite of my greengrocer. I was glad to have a fruit-and-veg shop but never used it for reasons of convenience. By contrast, I have been boycotting Uber on principle except on those occasions two or three times a week when I needed a cheap ride home.
Such is my moral certainty on Uber that I have twice come THIS close to deleting the app, unhappy at the company’s bad behaviour and the treatment of its drivers. I also balked at that uncomfortable feeling you get when being driven by someone who is one yawn away from falling asleep at the wheel. I really meant to stick with my protest, honest. But all those outrages seem surprisingly bearable when you are standing, low on cash, on a suburban street in the pouring rain.
Naturally, I resented the ease and value that forced me to use Uber against all my better instincts. I tried the Addison Lee app but they made me wait up to 20 minutes and the graphics weren’t as cool. Instead, those devious swines at Uber lured me back, in twice-weekly moments of weakness. I fumed over every five-star rating I was forced to award to polite drivers who turned up more or less on time and got me home at half the price of a taxi. I raged — raged I say — as the boy was able to come home late from parties for about £3 or £4 by splitting the cost with friends and texting me a picture of his driver’s details as an added safety precaution. And this was Uber’s evil plan — to make itself so useful that it could flout rules with impunity.
It was the same with all the books I bought on Amazon or the music on iTunes. I really wanted to support the bookshops and record stores. I truly pined for a Tower Records where I could spend a happy hour browsing. But I really wanted that album now, and the bookshop on my way home never had the thing I wanted in stock. I was busy. I didn’t have the time to go searching for that birthday present. Or maybe I did but I was really tired, or it was raining, or I had to wait in for the Ocado man. But that’s me. I’m hopeless: what was your excuse? I may be lazy, but I was counting on you to be better than me.
So all these places I loved have been sacrificed on the lethal altars of convenience and value for money. I know that Uber’s business model is questionable. I know its pricing is designed to drive out competitors, and I know that it doesn’t play by the rules. But you have to admit, it’s damn handy.
And this is why I am quietly pleased that London has taken a stand because, frankly, I wasn’t going to and — let’s face it — neither were most of you. The spirit was willing but the wallet was weak. Obviously, I also hope that the stand doesn’t last too long because Uber is a fabulously useful service that has shaken up the black-cab cartel. I just want them made to compete fairly so that I can feel better about using them — or a similar rival — again.
Free markets are a general good but they need someone looking beyond instant gratification to the wider consequences because the bottom line is consumers are like children. We need to be told that convenience is not the only issue. We need to be told to eat our greens.