A few decades back, British miners were going on strike to maintain job levels in a declining coal industry, even when the mines were depleted or unprofitable. A pointed magazine headline said they were striking against geology.
The same sense of futility was in the air when Toronto taxi drivers held a protest against Uber on Thursday. Like the miners, taxi companies see their industry under threat in changing times. Like the miners, they are lashing out against the future. The struggle is just as hopeless. To strike against the advance of technology is to put on the same blinkers the miners did when they struck against the facts of geology.
Uber is the rising company that uses a smartphone app to link riders with drivers. To summon a car, you just tap on the screen of your phone.
The service has distinct advantages over traditional taxi service. Instead of trying to hail a cab from the side of a busy street or calling a taxi-company dispatcher and hoping your cab will appear, you watch the car approach on the map on your screen. You know when it is going to arrive and who the driver is. No need to fumble for cash or card as you get out. Your account is linked to your credit card so payment is automatic. A receipt goes to your e-mail.
No wonder the cab companies hate it. Uber has exposed how out of date the taxi business is and how much better customer service can be. Thursday's protest only drew attention to how inward looking the industry has become.
Cabbies parked their cars on Bay and Queen Streets, blocking traffic. Then they rallied in front of City Hall to denounce the incursion of Uber on their protected turf. "This is not their house," taxi owner Amin Srkar told The Globe's Ann Hui. "This is the Toronto taxi industry's."
Toronto Taxi Industry Betrayed, said one of their placards. Toronto Taxicabs BEST, said another.
If that were true, Uber might not be such a success. But anybody accustomed to riding cabs around the city knows it can be a frustrating experience. Cabs summoned by phone sometimes show up late or don't show up at all. Cab drivers often heave a great sigh when riders ask to pay by card instead of cash, then laboriously power up what seems to be a steam-powered payment device. Some don't even know their way around the city. When I asked one cabbie to take me to City Hall, he said: "You mean the one at Queen's Park?"
To be fair, most of them are decent guys doing a stressful job for little pay. They are getting squeezed from one side by limousine services and from the other by Uber. They particularly dislike UberX, the service that lets ordinary drivers in their own cars pick up riders. That, they justifiably say, is an end run around the whole city licencing and regulation regime for cabs.
But that regime is not working very well, either for cabbies or for customers. City council has seen years of debate over how to dole out taxi licences. Cabbies show up en masse at many city council meetings to fight over whether to toss out or keep the current two-tier licencing system. Forgotten in the scuffle is the office worker waiting in the rain for a cab at the end of a long day – in short, the customer.
Mayor John Tory gets it right when he says that "competition, choice and better service for people" should be city hall's aim as the struggle between Uber and the taxi industry progresses. Uber and services like it, he says, are here to stay. To pretend that the taxi industry will go on as before is no better than it was to pretend that all those coal mines would stay open. Industries evolve, technologies improve. That is something to applaud, not denounce.