That people still call and wait on hold in order to get through to a cab company so, if they are lucky, they can eventually wait for a cab that may not turn up is a remarkable thing in this, the age of impatience.
"I can't leave, I called a cab 30 minutes ago. What if it comes and I'm not here?" ought to sound like Middle English by now. The response to that sentence should be "Why are you quoting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at me? The movie starts in 20 minutes. You need transport, not chivalric romance."
Who calls any more? Who waits? We do. Many of us, but only for cabs. Most of us are in relationships with cab companies that wouldn't pass a magazine "Is it time to break up?" quiz: We don't trust them. We've cheated on them. We have serious concerns about their personal hygiene. We didn't have fun the last time we went out together.
We stay with them only because there's a hole in the urban transportation market the size of the Grand Canyon. People waited a long time for that hole to be filled. Often on hold, or on a street corner, they crossed over to hoping they'd have better luck there. They've waited in the snow while empty cabs went by them because the drivers found their four bags of groceries – which the riders are of course trained to load and unload themselves – off-putting.
And then, in many cities, Uber and other ride-sharing companies like Lyft came along, and people got in those cars in droves. Uber is a smartphone-based car- and taxi-hailing app. You can watch your driver – a professional cab driver, or an amateur, whose profile is provided to you – approach on your phone. Uber operates the way things will increasingly operate: by enabling consumers to buy a service directly from a seller.
Think of Uber as Airbnb on wheels. You can read reviews of your driver, and review your driver through Uber; but the drivers don't work for Uber because that would make Uber a taxi service, subject to all the rules in place for taxi companies. Instead, your free-agent driver and you are just participating in "the sharing economy," which sounds like something to be encouraged in preschooling industrialists and does have rather adorable moments. Perhaps it's the novelty of all this, but people seem to chat with their Uber drivers the same way they sometimes befriend their Airbnb hosts.
It's a story as old as time: "I have an underutilized resource, you have an unmet need." And many of the age-old questions – "Who is this guy?", "Will this person meet my need?" – are ones we can now research ourselves, online, making some regulations seem obsolete.
People date this way. People have sex this way. And there are risks in all these things, but then I think people know that.
I've had only great experiences with Uber, which is less expensive than taking a cab. Suddenly it's as if I were never warned not to get into a stranger's car, but arguably that's what I do every time I hail a cab. The Uber drivers I've had have been good drivers in solid, clean cars.
Which is why I was unhappy to learn that Uber seems to be run like a combination of some kind of movie Mafia, the Nixon administration and a frat house from a nineties comedy.
Thousands deleted their Uber apps this week when it was revealed that Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice-president of business, mused about hiring detectives to dig up dirt on journalists who'd criticized the company.
This naturally drew attention to said criticism: The general manager for the New York office greeted a journalist arriving in an Uber car with "I was tracking you," suggesting that Uber is alarmingly casual about its users' privacy.
And Uber has been ferocious toward its competitor, Lyft, reportedly ordering thousands of Lyft rides only to cancel them, while attempting to poach Lyft drivers. Uber also planned a promotion in France promising passengers they'd be driven around by what translates as "hot chick drivers," shown in their underwear. This ride would last a maximum of 20 minutes, explained the world's skeeviest disclaimer.
Turns out the company ought to be called Hubris.
These controversies may prove to be an even bigger problem for Uber than the not-at-all-insignificant problem of the court injunctions popping up everywhere like large legal mushrooms. This week Toronto sought such an injunction.
All of this is regrettable. The world is waiting for a cab.