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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Why Cab Companies Should Just Burn Now

Long story short, I went to New Orleans on Thursday, March 12 for a bachelor party and before I returned home on Saturday evening I was convinced that taxi companies are a blight on the Earth and must be eradicated as soon as possible.

So when I stepped outside the airport to the lower level I was introduced to the reason that Hayek’s spontaneous order is magnificent and bureaucratic planning is hellishly inefficient. There was a massive line, probably an hour long, of people who wanted a cab. I went to the booth where you are supposed to put in your order and naturally there was no one in it. Just then a taxi driver I had spoken to moments earlier sauntered up and in a hushed tone said “if you don’t want to wait in line… just go upstairs.”

Holy shit. What a fucking brilliant idea I had never thought of. I went upstairs to departures and within ten minutes I was in a taxi. The driver gave me his card and told me to call the taxi company directly when I needed to go back to the airport… apparently hotels have a little racket set up where if you call a taxi through them, they charge the cab ten bucks as a “finders fee.”

When it came time to get a taxi into town the following evening (there is no Uber service in New Orleans because of state corruption), I called the first number on the business card. Busy signal. Called the second number. Busy signal. After 8 attempts I got a person who assured me a cab would be along in “five to fifteen minutes.” After 20 minutes, we just flagged a passing taxi.

On Saturday afternoon it was time to head back to the airport. If I was permitted Uber, I could have just opened the app, clicked a button and a car would have been on its way in a few minutes. I would know exactly where the car was, how fast it was coming and could have planned accordingly, secure in the fact that I would get to the airport on time. If there was a lesser supply of drivers and a higher demand, prices would have gone up to encourage more drivers to enter the market, and I happily would have paid the extra fare to get to the airport on time.

But no, I had to deal with taxi companies that refuse to use phone apps, reputation systems, and even fucking GPS location. I tried again unsuccessfully five or six times to get through the busy signals and eventually just asked the hotel manager to call a taxi for me.

This taxi driver said he’d prefer cash to credit. “Those credit card swipe machine companies, they rip us off!” So began a 20 minute rant about the taxi business. He told me that a card swipe will cost them as much as 20% of a fare, so to calm him I told him I’d tip in cash. He also claimed that the local government will take a pre-tax fee of as much as 3.5% (managing a racket is of course expensive). He complained about Louisiana corruption vociferously, even claiming he was a victim of Eminent Domain abuse. When I asked him what he thought of Uber, he was emphatic that it was unfair competition that was putting honest taxi drivers out of business. He also didn’t seem to understand how the reputation system worked.

My final taxi driver drove me from BWI to my home in Baltimore. When I asked him if he’d consider being an Uber driver, he too complained that Uber was unfair competition whose drivers didn’t have to pay business taxes or suffer regulations and background checks. “It’s not fair. Everything should be the same,” he said confidently, indicating he believed the government’s, tight regulation, flat fare and queued up taxicab patrons was the right way to do business. I suggested it might be better for business if the government regulated taxis less, not Uber more, a point which seemed to mystify him, although he was more supportive of taxis using an app-based reputation system like Uber.

What I took from all this is the weird combination of Stockholm Syndrome, entitlement and bunker mentality that taxi drivers seem to have when you bring up Uber.They seem aware they work for an outdated, inefficient, and vaguely extortionist government racket and encourage riders to find little loopholes around it, but in the end the bunker wins the day. But like Eleanor Roosevelt and other luddites 1930’s petitioning against automated factory work 80 years ago, they are fighting a losing battle against progress. It's a battle they need to lose sooner, rather than later.

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