Congratulations, Mobile City Council, you did something right.
Last month, by a unanimous vote, the City Council authorized the Internet ride-hailing service Uber to operate within the city limits.
Uber’s victory didn’t come without some pushback. At least one Councilor expressed skepticism about the safety of the service and the reliability of its contract employees.
Obviously none of those skeptics have had the pleasure of being beholden to this city’s for-hire taxi cab service.
As someone who lived in Mobile for four years and has returned to the city on various occasions over the past eight years, each time needing to use the city’s scarce public transportation options, I can speak as somewhat of an authority on this. You need your head examined if you don’t recognize Mobile’s need for a service like Uber.
My first encounter with Uber was in 2011, when I listened to Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, speak at a gathering of journalists in Washington, D.C., at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
At the time, Uber only offered black-car service, boasting a fleet of black Lincoln Town Cars, SUVs, etc. At the time the service was significantly more expensive than a traditional taxi cab. It was, however, vastly more reliable.
Kalanick’s problem at the time was much the same as it is today — convincing local governments, with their entrenched interests, to allow Uber to operate within their city limits. His struggle, when he spoke to the Heritage Foundation gathering four years ago, was overcoming bureaucratic hurdles in Washington, D.C.
Ultimately, the wall came down despite an onslaught of Uber horror stories propagated by a concerted public relations campaign to scare the public.
Like taxis are any better? No, especially in Mobile.
It’s roughly 13 miles from The Battle House Hotel to the Mobile Regional Airport. For whatever reason, back in the day, our town elders decided to put the city’s airport halfway to the Mississippi state line, but that’s a different discussion for another day.
If you’re visiting Mobile, renting a car is likely your best option. But if Mobile wants to be a major city, a dependable and reliable taxi system is a plus in trying to achieve that. Why would anyone put up with dropping $100 ($50 each way) because some cab driver is trying to make an extra $15 by taking an unsuspecting passenger downtown via a roundabout route including both interstates instead of the most direct route?
I’ve heard and experienced all sorts of horror stories about Mobile taxi cab services throughout the years — waiting over an hour for a cab driver to arrive from the time you order it because of a lack of drivers, missed flights, exorbitant fares, etc.
It’s not that Uber is a cure-all for a lot of this, but it’s about time there was some competition in the system.
There’s also the public safety element. During my years at the University of South Alabama, for some students making the trek from the Dauphin Street bars back to the residence halls on campus in the wee hours of the night/morning on a weekend was an all-too-common occurrence.
More than a decade ago, the university tinkered with the idea of using student fees to institute some sort of voucher system to ensure transportation could be provided back and forth. But like a lot of things, it fell victim to abuse and the school scrapped the idea.
There are documented studies that cities that have allowed Uber to operate have seen reductions in DUI arrests. Even if you think Uber is unsafe and unfair, it’s still a better option than someone inebriated operating a two-ton piece of steel at a high rate of speed down an interstate highway.
That’s one of the reasons the reluctance to allow Uber, or any of the other fledgling services like it, to operate in Mobile is befuddling.
As with many things, other cities across the country had the debate over whether to allow Uber to operate years ago. Although there are still a handful of holdouts, most of them have conceded that you’re not going to stop the market forces driven by these innovations.
Instead of cities hassling Uber because they want to protect their taxi system, they ought to be offering incentives like tax breaks to lure services like Uber.
How many times over the years in Alabama have there been these so-called economic initiatives put on a ballot to give some foreign automaker a tax break or free infrastructure if they build a manufacturing facility in some back corner of the state? Closer to home, remember all the time and energy put into the failed KC-X tanker effort by these elected leaders?
It’s probably unfair to say Uber would have any significant economic impact on the city of Mobile, but it is a service that will make the lives of residents and business owners better. Also, it isn’t costing the city a whole lot of money, which cannot be said for a lot of what the city, with its high sales tax, does in the name of the interest of its citizens.