Carolina Hurricanes and Uber logos
Asides,  innovation,  Travel

The problems with tech companies as infrastructure

None of what I am about to relay is new, but it’s enlightening when you have a small personal experience that momentarily lifts away the curtain to demonstrate the broader significance of a trend. So, on the one hand this story is “man had to wait slightly longer for a taxi, boohoo” and on the other it is “foretaste of troubling social trend.” You can decide.

Last week I visited my daughter who is studying for a year abroad in North Carolina. Being ice hockey fans we went to see the Carolina Hurricanes (twice) in Raleigh. The PNC Arena where they play is a few miles out of town and not served by any public transport that I could ascertain. So far, so very American. I went to see the Chicago Blackhawks several years ago, and they provided free buses leaving regularly which dropped people off in downtown. It was an easy, and friendly service – I’m not sure if they still operate it, although I think many bars provide a shuttle service.

The Canes however, don’t offer any such service. Instead they say they have ‘partnered’ with Uber. This doesn’t seem to amount to anything other than offering a pick up point and saying “off you go”. It was, predictably, quite chaotic after the game with a large group of people trying to order Ubers from the same point. Several issues arose. Firstly, there were several Ubers nearby in the car park, but they were refusing pick ups, so you had to wait for them to decline. Secondly, drivers often accepted, got half way and became stuck in traffic, then declined and turned around. Thirdly, people got desperate and started getting in unmarked cars that were offering lifts. Lastly, the whole place became snarled up so drivers couldn’t get in to take people away.

A lot of this is just the usual frustration of exiting a large event. It took us about an hour to get one, but we arrived back at the hotel safely, so ultimately it was just a bit inconvenient, not a crisis. But it points to several bigger issues I think. By ‘partnering’ with Uber, the PNC Arena effectively sheds all responsibility for transport. But Uber drivers, as we experienced, are under no obligation to accept a ride. This is quite different from a taxi rank, where taxi drivers are largely obliged to accept the next customer. The result is an overall lack of responsibility and ownership for broader social issues such as transport. It all falls to the individual.

Another issue is that it is very inefficient, particularly from the perspective of fuel and the environment. Having shuttle buses would be ideal and would move traffic faster, but even a row of taxis ready to roll would generate less waste in queuing to get to the arena for pick up.

As I mentioned i saw some people getting into cars that were offering a ride. This obviously raises a safety issue, but because of the responsibility avoidance mentioned previously, this is down to the individual and not related to the Arena.

I’ve written about the dubious economics and labour practices of Uber before, but I acknowledge they also provide a convenient option often (particularly in places that lack any public transport). And I met a few drivers who seemed to appreciate the flexibility and control they had over their working hours. So this is not to say that Uber is necessarily a bad option, but the same kind of “outsource to the dominant tech company” model is the type of proposal libertarians like to propose for education, healthcare, and up until last week, ahem banking. But my small experience was that the shining future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Still, I expect someone will be along to reinvent a bus soon enough.

Anyway, let’s go Canes!

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