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Taxi drivers protest against Uber during a demonstration at Bay and Queen as they block streetcars in Toronto. (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)
Taxi drivers protest against Uber during a demonstration at Bay and Queen as they block streetcars in Toronto. (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)

Commentary

Taxi industry losing war to Uber because of customer service, not technology Add to ...

As I reached for the seatbelt buckle in the Beck taxi, I felt a strange, thick liquid, almost gel-like, between the buckle and the black, plastic bench seat. I mentioned it to the cab driver and, when he turned on the interior light, I realized the back seat was covered in this mysterious white substance. My wife and I quickly opened the doors, hopped out and discovered that both of our jackets and my dress pants were covered in something – that we could only guess was oil or lard. Or worse.

The driver, who seemed more concerned about how this delay would affect him, mumbled “these people” as if to pass blame.

We ran back in our house, changed and requested an Uber car instead – because we were now running late for my wife’s company holiday party Saturday evening and didn’t have another 10 minutes to wait for a cab – and because if something like this happened again, I wanted the ability to rate the service.

Related: How Uber is ending the dirty dealings behind Toronto's cab business

To my surprise, the cab was still in front of our house when we returned outside. Did he really think we were going to get back in his cab even if he wiped the seat with a rag from his trunk? I told him we weren’t, he apologized and drove away.

Moments later, our UberX car, at 2.2 times the regular rate, arrived and ferried us downtown.

I called Beck the next day, asking if it would cover dry cleaning costs. The woman on the phone apologized for the incident, but said nothing further could be done. The drivers are independent contractors, she said, Beck isn’t responsible and the company won’t reimburse anything.

Frustrated, I later recounted the story to friends. Someone told me about a mishap on an Uber ride and how the company not only reimbursed them for the trip, but also gave them a credit.

So I asked Uber how it would respond to my incident. “Typically, riders will submit information into our customer support system and our support reps will investigate and refund or credit the rider as applicable,” said Susie Heath, with Uber Canada.

Thousands of taxi drivers clogged Toronto streets and highways Wednesday to protest Uber, but if they want to win over customers, the place to start is simply by offering better service. It is a simpler fix than protesting, lobbying city hall or anything else they are trying. The taxi industry is hoping for an injunction to shut down UberX. Toronto Mayor John Tory has said an injunction is not going to happen as city staff work to reform the current bylaws to bring Uber under the law and make it easy for cabbies to operate. When the laws are eventually reformed, there will be no reason to hail a traditional cab.

As the taxi industry in many cities across Canada fights for its existence, companies and drivers struggle to understand that potential fares are choosing Uber because it offers better customer service, not just lower fares or ease of an app. In fact, the Uber ride we took was at a time when demand was high, supply was low and prices were ‘surging’ – meaning it cost far more than a traditional cab. It was still worth it.

The first time my wife and I used Uber it was because of the convenience of the app and because we had a promo code, which meant a free trip home. We continue to use it because of the customer service. I can’t say I have had an unpleasant ride with Uber. The cars arrive faster, are clean, the drivers are friendly and some even offer water to passengers. I have never got in an Uber car that has all the windows down on a cold night, smelling like smoke.

Taxi drivers will display signs that read ‘Stop Uber’, they will protest and three in Toronto even went on a hunger strike in an effort to stop a service they refer to as an “illegal enterprise”.

Admittedly, they have a point. Toronto and many other cities have a system by which cabs must be licensed and there are a finite number of licenses available. Uber argues it is a technology company, not a taxi company and is therefore not subject to the same rules.

Uber entered the Toronto market in August 2012, and Torontonians were rewarded with better customer service; the kind of service not usually found in an industry with little competition. Municipal regulations limit the number of licenses, creating a system of limited cabs, which can’t meet demand, charge high prices and offer poor service. But until Uber and other similar apps came along, there was no need for the taxi industry to improve.

Beck and other taxi companies have upgraded their apps to make them more like Uber’s, but it may not be enough. If taxi companies want to compete – or survive – they should take a page out of Uber’s service mentality. A good start would be to allow passengers to rate drivers and the company, not to mention rectifying negative experiences.

No amount of government lobbying will save an industry from bad customer service. Vancouver and Calgary have banned Uber, but eventually some type of Uber-type system will triumph. It is what people are choosing.

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