In a now famous Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GcsbVhf03w) Toronto taxi driver, identified as Suntharesan Kanagasabai, compares Uber to Isis. The disdain among the taxi community in Toronto for ride-sharing service Uber has reached epic proportions.
This weekend taxi drivers in Toronto are threatening to strike as part of a coalition against the ride-sharing service Uber. According to CBC Metro Morning, the protest is purposely being scheduled to fall on the busy NBA All Star weekend in Toronto, and to disrupt the Friday afternoon commute. Not only are there going to be less cabs available to residents and tourists alike, but there are actual plans to block roads and stop traffic on “Highway 427, the Gardiner and areas around Air Canada Centre” (CBC, Feb. 10/16). While it is – and ought to be – everyone’s right to let their voice be heard, the steps taken in this case are ill-planned and short sighted.
If the purpose of the strike-protest is to raise awareness of the United Taxi Workers Association’s argument that taxi drivers are being undermined by the flexibility (and purported unlawfulness) of Uber, it is questionable that this approach to action will work to achieve the goal. First and foremost Torontonians really dislike commuting, some say that Toronto is one of the worst cities to commute in throughout all of North America (as documented for example, by this related CBC piece about delays to the morning TTC rush hour http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ttc-delays-1.3440052; or this one about the “intolerability of crushing commutes” http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/programs/metromorning/crushing-commutes-make-toronto-s-suburbs-intolerable-for-some-1.3441023). In other words, people get really annoyed when there are delays, either on the subway or on the streets, which is why it is improbable that blocking traffic, and causing more delays on a Friday afternoon of the All Star Weekend, could be a productive way of raising the sympathy levels of Toronto commuters for the taxi industry. In fact, there is a good chance that it would be counter-productive in more ways than one.
The goal of any protest is to raise awareness, and make voices heard, and we should all be thankful that the demonstrations of the human spirit occur. However, systematically blocking streets around the city – in order to raise awareness about Uber’s impact on the pre-existing taxi industry, impinges on people’s right to travel freely about the city. It is one thing if taxi cab drivers go on strike and make it impossible to get a cab on a certain day; but it is quite another thing to say that I am disallowed from getting to my destination in a reasonable time by means of my own volition. There is a distinction to be made between taking away a service that one offers, and taking away a condition that is required for the service to be possible in the first place. A cab driver uses the public roads in order to offer a service; the service a cab driver offers does not bring about the existence of roads. Roads pre-exist taxi services, and are there whether there are cab drivers using the roads to offer a service or not. Without these publicly funded roads, there would be no cab drivers in the first place.
The streets are filled with large conglomerates of metal on wheels, travelling at a deadly velocity, zipping in and out of demarcated lanes. Humans operate this machinery, the same humans that sleep, eat, think thoughts, and make mistakes. It is the case that sometimes when drivers get upset, stressed, or generally agitated, their blood pressure goes up, and their concentration wanes – i.e., they become prone to making rash decisions and taking on a more aggressive style of driving. Contributing to these effects by intentionally slowing traffic is simply malicious. It attempts to take people’s time away from their lives, time that could be spent in any number of ways, with their families (or watching the NBA All Star Game), time taken away because these commuters must spend this additional time stuck behind a wheel or on a bus because of purposeful obstructions on civil streets. These same roads are paid for by commuters’ tax dollars to sustain, in order to enable them to safely commute back and forth to the places they must go. And these are also the same roads EMS vehicles must travel on during the emergencies they attend to on an hourly basis. In a sense, then, intentionally obstructing the free flow of traffic is taking time away from people’s lives because 1) they must commute longer; 2) an intentional raise in the level of stress inflicted upon these fallible human commuters; and 3) adding precious seconds to a person’s commute in an ambulance. Although this may sound very alarmist, at the end of the day, the flow of traffic in the arteries of the social organism is akin to the flow of blood in the biological organism: intentionally stopping the flow incurs negative consequences in both the biological and social body.
The fact is we live in a world where change happens at an accelerated pace. Technology changes, and with these changes, alterations in the modes in which we engage with each other, and with commerce, also changes. Uber is but one example of how these technological changes alter the occupational landscape. Just as people no longer need a middle person to help them to book a flight – unless they want the services of a travel agent – social networking brings with it new possibilities of sharing rides and managing transportation in ways that work for people based on their preference. If Uber did not work, and if people did not like it, it would not exist. The fact that it exists, and the fact that it is based on an altered technological landscape, is no reason to say that we must preserve the status quo at all cost. Conserving something for the sake of conserving it, in the face of an overwhelming movement in a different direction, could itself be seen as heavy handed legalizing, and in a way, even undemocratic (if we must use such vulgar terms). During a personal conversation with a cab driver in Winnipeg this December, I was told that he “wished” Uber was available in Winnipeg, and that he would quickly – and gladly – become an Uber driver, giving up driving a conventional cab altogether in the blink of an eye.
As technology changes, so does industry; in some cases there are very unfortunate consequences to these changes – people have to upgrade their skills, change occupations, work under different schedule/salary conditions, and so on. This raises larger questions about how technological flows affect sedimented industries, and the impact these have on those living and working within such industries. Drastic changes to the ways in which things are accomplished within one’s industry poses challenges to the people within those industries. But this is not new, and this is by no means particular to the cab industry. The frustration of those working in an industry undergoing such a change is understandable, and the attempt to take action to bring attention to the plight is indeed reasonable; however, it is the way in which this attention is being drawn that is wrongheaded. If the cab companies band together and decide to take x amount of taxis off the road on All Star Weekend, maybe people will feel the burden of having to wait longer for a cab, and realize just how much they appreciate the services these companies provide. But this is not what the purported protest-strike is threatening to do. It is attempting to go out of its way and make people feel a disruption in their commute in an artificial way by physically blocking roads, which, in a sense, flies in the face of the original intention of making people miss having cabs on the roads. As Paul Sekhon, general manager at City Taxi, and head of the United Taxi Workers Association told Matt Galloway on Metro Morning, “We’re going to be blocking the roads…When somebody is taking the bread and butter away from you and they’ve got nothing else coming in, you’re going to expose yourself how you want.” It’s interesting to note that the organizer of the protest blames a certain person (the “mayor”) for “encouraging” people to use an “illegal” service (Uber). Instead of seeing the larger perspective of the way technology impacts the way people interact with each other, and go about their business, Sekhon wants to blame a particular person. What he is overlooking is that people are not using Uber because the mayor tells them to – people are using Uber because it works.