I was sitting in the back of a good ‘ol Philly cab this week when a new bit of programming came on the ‘Taxi TV’. Sick of the Brooklyn preciousness of ‘Talk Stoop,’ I was ready for a change. It turned out to be a short interstitial for, essentially, the entire taxicab industry with a very clear target – the upstart car service/app Uber.
It featured a woman paying her fare with a credit card while speaking directly into the camera. She spoke of how glad she is that the taxi payment method keeps her confidential information in her possession – which I thought strange – until she finished the sentence with a comparative to certain other ‘unregulated’ entities about which we should think twice before trusting with our digits.
The messaging here is classic fearmongering – like a good political ad – but that’s not the subject of this post. It should please the consumer that finally, rather than just throwing government apparatchiks at Uber, the taxi industry is starting to fight back the way they should in a free economy – by either improving what they do or seeking to win the argument. And that the argument is taking place in front of the consumer rather than a judge, city council or benighted bureaucrat is a good thing for those of us who seek choice.
As concepts like Uber and Airbnb have gained momentum, their old world competitors and government cronies have thrown up barriers – whether outdated taxicab regulations, some codicil in the darkest corner of the US tax code or whatever. Regulation certainly has a place in our economy, and it exists to ensure fair competition and consumer protection. The way Uber is treated in just about every new market is more thuggish than truly protective. As consumers, we should want entrepreneurs to find better ways – that leads to more, better choices for us and ultimately makes all surviving companies better too.
Beyond calling in the regulators, the taxi industry has many options to defend against Uber – both in messaging and experience improvement. First of all, it’s not clear how much of an incursion Uber is truly making since no reliable data is available – or if they are primarily taking business from regular cabs or other car services/limo companies (while supporting those drivers).
For me, Uber is mostly for odd hour airport trips when hailing a cab in Old City Philadelphia is too hit or miss (such as at 4:45 this AM). For most fares, Uber is quite a bit more expensive than a regular cab. The Uber experience is certainly preferable – especially with so much variability in how cab drivers treat their customers – but how much does that matter for short trips? Normal cabs are quicker in most central locations during normal hours than waiting on Uber. And who knows, maybe there is something to the data security argument.
Can’t you see a really powerful, emotional campaign on behalf of the taxicab industry that makes the drivers heroes, colorful personalities and embodiments of the true American dream? Such a strategy might actually cause them to turn down their radios. What about a gritty urban messaging approach that positions the taxi experience as central to what it means to live in and be a player in a bustling city? You’re not part of the action unless you zip around in a cab. I’d love to put this assignment – to build a brand concept for the traditional taxi – in our team’s hands to see what it would yield.
All of this doesn’t even touch the obvious experience improvements that could simultaneously bring a regular cab company into the same universe as Uber while dragging the taxi model into this century. Automating dispatch and payment would remove the primary reason I use Uber. If the task was to reimagine the taxicab experience within acceptable price/service levels, one can expect progressive outcomes – some might resemble Uber, while others might be better.
Ironically, it is the same regulatory bodies rising up to protect the old order that stymie innovation in the cab industry – just look at how the move to credit card acceptance was handled and how it hasn’t even taken place in some cities. Cab companies themselves have no freedom of price elasticity, very little leeway in service or dispatch practices, etc. So the government is, in effect, propping up the taxi industry like a wobbly boxer while tying one hand behind its back. The taxicab vs. Uber is a fight I want to see (and benefit from as a consumer) – it should be a fair fight waged on competing value propositions rather than regulatory power.