Uber Gets Into the Transit Business With UberHop

Stuck in traffic in Toronto. (Photo: Booledozer/flickr)

Wherever it goes, Uber is controversial and divisive — even in my own family, as I noted in an earlier post. Others used even stronger language about how Uber challenges existing laws and regulations for its own benefit:

Civil disobedience by citizens can be an important challenge to corrupt or immoral politicians, but when corporate leaders themselves start breaking the law in their own narrow interests, societal order breaks down.

I became convinced that my son was right, and the occasional time I've needed a cab, I've avoided Uber. However, the events of the last few weeks in Toronto where I live have changed my mind; I'm beginning to admire Uber for its chutzpah.

Just over a week ago, taxi drivers shut down Toronto in a protest against Uber, blocking streets, banging and hanging on Uber cars. It didn't help that everyone in the city hates our dirty cabs with rude drivers who talk on the phone and never have the right change for cash they demand, yet they don’t want to take credit cards. It was totally counterproductive, driving more customers to Uber cars, which are so easy to summon and pay for. Uber challenges an industry that nobody loves, which makes it very hard to hate.

Uberhop Routes
Hop on the Uberhop from the hot new developments to downtown. (Photo: Uber)

This week Uber introduced UberHop, which takes on the Toronto transit system. Talk about societal order breaking down!

The city has seen massive development, thousands of apartment units along its busiest streetcar line to the east and west of downtown, but has done nothing to cope with the increased load, and people are incredibly frustrated. So in comes UberHop, taking up to six passengers from dedicated locations in the new developments to the center of town. That, by any definition is a transit system, which for the last hundred years has been a legal monopoly run by the city.

But UberHop isn’t taking on the whole city. It's operating in the parts of town where there's been incredibly short-sighted transportation planning, with little investment in transit while billions are being spent to build politically motivated subways in the suburbs that will barely get used. UberHop is traveling on a route where new streetcars were supposed to be running years ago but that the incompetent manufacturer has failed to deliver. As the editorial in the Globe and Mail notes:

The reason for this is that public transit planning in Toronto has always been guided more by politics than economics. New lines are added to appease the largest number of voters, not to snag the largest number of riders. The money would have been far better spent in the high-density neighbourhoods UberHop is targeting.

Essentially, UberHop is doing what it did to taxis — competing with a broken system that everybody hates. The city and the transit workers union are lawyering up to stop it.

But this is the ultimate brilliance and chutzpah of it all: Uber moves in where there's clearly a need and a desire, and where the laws are seen not as something protecting the public, but instead serving the entrenched interests. No wonder they're turning everything upside-down.