“The Pickwick Papers,” set in 1827, begins with Charles Dickens’ kindly hero, Mr. Samuel Pickwick, “his portmanteau in hand, his telescope in his greatcoat pocket, his notebook in his waistcoat, ready for the reception of any discoveries worthy of being noted down,” setting off on his adventures from the coach stand at St. Martin’s-le-Grand.
“Cab!” he cries.
From then until a decade ago, that was one of three common ways to find a taxi — present yourself where cabs usually congregate, stand on the curb, arm flung in the air and hope a cab happens by, or, if you have time, phone a cab company.
A new method was added in 2008, when two software programmers, looking to ease the challenge of finding a taxi in San Francisco, came up with a program they called UberCab.
The company quickly grew by ignoring numerous strict regulations regarding cab companies in cities Uber entered. Taxis need expensive licenses, called medallions. Drivers also require lengthy training — the newspaper once sent me to get my cabbie license; the course prepping for the exam took three days.
Uber sidestepped all this by insisting it owns no cars, employs no drivers, so it isn’t a cab company — it dropped the “Cab” from its name to boost this argument. It’s just a piece of software, the way eBay isn’t a department store.
It worked. Uber is now a $62 billion company operating in 73 countries. Along the way, its reputation soured — a sexist corporate culture, notorious attacks involving drivers and those ruined cabbies — six killed themselves in New York over the past few months. Cities keep pushing back: last week, the New York City Council overwhelmingly approved a freeze on the number of ride-hailing vehicles for a year while it studies their effect on gridlocked Gotham.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, on what has been called “a global charm offensive,” stopped by the Sun-Times (his staff, not-so-charmingly, insisted he just happened to be in town for a meeting — I guess their thinking is: “The Midwest. Rubes.”). Normally, I avoid CEOs (Kraft once phoned and asked if I wanted to spend a day with CEO Irene Rosenfeld. “You forget,” I replied. “I already spent a day with Irene Rosenfeld. One is plenty.”). But I couldn’t pass up a chance to hear Khosrowshahi’s spin on his first year at the sharp-elbowed company.
“It’s amazing how fast time has flown,” he said. “For me, what has been important about business has been getting it back on its proper footing. I knew this wouldn’t be a cakewalk.”
He said the company, which hopes to go public next year, is trying to move forward without tromping on so many toes.
“It is not growth at any cost,” he said. “It is responsible growth and growth where we can bring along lots and lots of partners with us.”
Those “driver/partners” were the editorial board’s chief concern. There are many hidden costs to being an Uber driver. You pay for gas, your car’s upkeep, your phone. It’s not like being nestled in the warm embrace of an employer.
What do drivers earn? The most impressive thing Uber did was actually follow through and send the stats we asked for. Chicago Uber drivers earned $335 million in 2017, according to the company, which sounds impressive, until you realize that there are more than 30,000 Uber drivers, meaning the average driver gets about $11,000 a year. Not just a gig, but a part-time gig. The average hourly pay for an Uber driver in Chicago is $16.23, but with expenses “between $2.94 and $6.46” an hour, that puts drivers around the Chicago minimum wage of $12 an hour. At McDonald’s, you’d get sick days and vacation and maybe becoming assistant manager someday. That seems a smarter career choice.
I have friends who won’t take Uber, out of sympathy with cabbies who played by the rules and got screwed. To me, that’s like refusing to use Amazon out of solidarity with Macy’s, and besides, as anyone knows who ever stood on some windswept industrial corner of Goose Island, wondering how to get back to the office, Uber is useful.
Cabs are going to be autonomous soon anyway. “Three, five or 10 years,” Khosrowshahi said. Trucks, too. Our society is facing a hollowed-out middle class, along with global warming, health care and all the other crisis cans being kicked down the road.
“Fundamentally, this is a service that every city in the world deserves,” he said. “We will win the war.”