When Toronto cab drivers parked their cars in protest this week, tying up a key downtown intersection, a frustrated couple standing nearby were overheard discussing how to download the Uber app on their phones so they could get a ride. The cabbies, as it happened, were protesting against Uber. Their strike served to drive this couple, and many other people besides, to embrace the very service the cabbies seek to suppress.
The scene neatly illustrated the futility of trying to ban Uber cars from city streets. Uber is succeeding not, as the cab drivers would have it, because city hall and the police are failing to crack down hard enough on what cabbies see as an illegal rival. It is succeeding because it offers a better way to get a ride.
Touch your phone to summon a car; watch it arrive on a map; see who your driver is; rate his service if you like; have the cost charged automatically without pulling out your wallet. These may seem like minor conveniences, but in a time when many people feel overstretched, the ease of Uber has a powerful appeal.
Just look at the popularity of another new technology: the tap-to-pay system. It saves only a little time. Pushing your debit or credit card into a machine and punching in your PIN number, as in the old system, takes just a few seconds. And yet the new way – tap and, presto, you've paid – is magic. Shoppers love it. They get the feeling that, for once, someone is trying to make things easier for them. When they go to a store that doesn't have tap, they may even feel a little annoyed at the backwardness of the old insert-card, poke-at-machine, wait-for-approval rigmarole.
It can feel the same way taking a cab these days. Suddenly, the old way of getting a ride – call a dispatcher; wait for a car to arrive who knows when, driven by who knows who; fumble for money to pay – seems hopelessly, almost ridiculously, archaic, akin to hailing a horse-drawn hansom cab on a busy, modern street.
Striking against Uber is striking against the future; no, worse than that, the present. Uber is already here and well-established. Many thousands use it in Toronto and other Canadian cities every day. It's too late to ban it.
Toronto Mayor John Tory is right when he says that cities have to adapt to popular new technologies, not pretend they can turn back the clock. The days when cab companies had a lock on a closed and highly regulated market are over. The old world is rapidly changing.
Using the hammer of the law against Uber won't work. Do police send out undercover cops to summon rides and bust the drivers? Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders was putting it mildly on Friday when he said that enforcement is "complex." He is waiting at least until the outcome of a number of court cases on the issue before deciding how, or whether, to act.
That makes the cab drivers furious. The mayor won't do anything. The police chief won't do anything. These are hard-working people, many of them immigrants with their feet clawing at the bottom of the economic ladder. Their world is coming down around their ears.
But authorities have to consider more than the interests of the cabbies or the cab companies. It isn't the job of government to protect industries from change, although they often act as if it is. It is the consumer – in this case the rider – who has to come first.
Riders are rushing to embrace Uber and similar apps and services. Why? Because they offer to make life just a little bit simpler and easier. In a harried, hurry-up world, that is irresistible.