September 27, 2013
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The most interesting products of the smartphone revolution have been apps that don’t just make accessing information more convenient, but make life more convenient. From finding undiscovered restaurants with an app like Yelp to rerouting a road trip on-the-fly with Google Maps or avoiding unanticipated traffic, there are an amazing number of new conveniences which simply weren’t possible before.
Readers who live in major major metropolitan areas may be familiar with another example, a smartphone app and car service called Uber. In 23 cities across the country, customers can pull out their smartphones, open the Uber app, and summon a black car or select taxis to their GPS location. Typically within minutes, the car rolls up to carry them wherever they want to go, and when they arrive at their destination, no cash exchange is necessary. The Uber app charges the fee to the account holder’s credit card automatically. The whole process is seamless and much more pleasant and reliable than trying to hail a cab.
This convenience has won Uber a devoted base of customers, and it has left residents of cities where Uber is not yet available screaming for the service’s expansion.
Unfortunately, that expansion has hit major roadblocks in many cities around the country. Specifically, the taxi companies have attempted to co-opt government to stop the new, more convenient, and more upscale competition. In yesterday’s edition of The Transom, Ben Domenech pointed to a recent blog post by Uber’s Corey Owens. Owens wrote about his efforts to overcome the regulatory assault against Uber in Portland, Oregon:
The marriage between government and industry in Portland is hardly the only example. In Dallas, Yellow Taxi’s lawyer worked with city officials to organize a fruitless sting against Uber. In Colorado, Public Utilities Commission staff proposed anti-Uber regulations after a local taxi lobbyist wrote to them pleading for “rules changes” to address the Uber “issue.” In Missouri, the chairman of the Metropolitan St. Louis Taxicab Commission is a lobbyist who walks the halls of state government on behalf of the Commission, which is primarily made up of – you guessed it – taxi companies. This is regulation by the taxi industry for the taxi industry. Consumers’ interests are getting bulldozed by lobbyists, campaign contributions, and cronyism run amok.
Uber has run up against this misuse of government power again and again, in nearly every city to which it has expanded.
This is a perfect example of the fight between what I call “pioneers of the future” and “prison guards of the past” in my upcoming book Breakout, which will be published November 4. Uber is actually one of the real examples we use in the book.
In dozens of important areas today, we see pioneers like Uber who are solving problems and making life better and more convenient. Yet nearly everywhere these innovations are occurring–in education, in medicine, in energy, even in transportation–there are self-interested parties protecting their privileges using regulation, bureaucracy, and red tape to keep us trapped in the past.
This conflict, of which the battle between Uber and the taxi commissions is just a snapshot, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing America today. “Prison guards” in dozens of fields are contributing to our sluggish economy and sustained unemployment. And they are responsible for many of the challenges we have not overcome in zones like health and education.
It will take political action by citizen activists to dislodge these roadblocks to a better future. Uber has recognized this fact in its own business and mobilized its customers to defend it with remarkable success.
I will be writing much more about this topic in the weeks and months ahead.