It’s funny to look back at the news stories from a little less than four years ago when Mobile was trying to lure Uber to start serving our little slice of Heaven. There was much gnashing of teeth and worry about the effect the ride-hailing service might have upon the taxi company already in place.
It’s hard to believe, but the City Council and mayor’s office went round and round over it — mostly over procedural issues concerning which hoops had to be jumped through first before Uber could start running and who got to hold the hoop. Some things never change, right?
Councilwoman Bess Rich publicly offered scenarios where an Uber driver would turn on his app to begin taking passengers and get in a wreck and his insurance might not cover damage the same way it would have otherwise. This led to Rich and then Chief of Staff Colby Cooper having some pretty heated exchanges in Cyber World.
State Rep. Margie Wilcox, who owns Yellow Cab and Mobile Bay Transportation, compared the service to “high-tech hitchhiking” and made sure her lawyer was right in the middle of the action. At some points it seemed like we might actually lose the deal.
Fast forward to Mobile 2019 and you have to wonder what all the ruckus was about. Having Uber, and subsequently Lyft, in our community has absolutely transformed the way Mobilians do things — particularly when it comes to drinking and driving. As we reported last week, DUI arrests in this city have plummeted since Uber started serving the community. When I say plummeted, I mean dropped off the table.
In 2015, there were 814 DUI arrests. The year before featured 858. But in 2016 — Uber’s first full year of operation — those arrests fell to 408, and then to 291 in 2017. Last year DUI arrests bumped up to 336, but that’s still 522 fewer DUIs than in 2014.
I’m not trying to discount the efforts of the Mobile Police Department in curbing drunk driving, because it has also been a focus for them. But this same kind of effect has been seen in a number of other cities where ride-hailing companies came in.
Mobile was particularly in need of this. Let’s face it — this is a hard-drinking town. I’ve lived in New Orleans and D.C., and Mobilians are as fond of the bottle as any place I’ve been. That’s compounded by the fact that many of our favorite party places stay open all night, which can make for some bad decisions in the wee hours.
Pre-Uber, trying to get a cab wasn’t as hard as solving a Rubik’s Cube, but it took longer. So many times people would sit waiting, finally give up and then get in their cars when they shouldn’t have. Sometimes those people were arrested, or got in wrecks or even got killed. Or killed someone else. There probably aren’t many reading this who haven’t known someone who was hurt or killed in a drunk driving accident.
But I also know the vast, vast majority of the time people got behind the wheel after drinking too much, nothing bad happened. They weren’t arrested, got home and slept it off. Some were ashamed the next day. Others just figured it’s part of living in Mobile — a place with no public transportation to speak of.
When I think of more than 800 people getting DUIs over the course of a year, I wonder how many more hammered drivers were never pulled over, but were still out there on the roads. It’s a frightening concept. If we’re using 2014-2015 numbers as a baseline, there have been roughly 1,400 fewer DUI arrests since Uber arrived than there might have been otherwise. That has to mean far fewer drunks on the road. Some of us are probably alive today because there are better options now.
Life here has changed so dramatically just from that one thing. It’s such an easy choice now to spend $7 on an Uber and not have to worry about having a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, or funneling a 12-pack at a baby shower. (Not recommended.)
Of course there are other benefits that don’t revolve around Mobilians’ penchant for involving booze in almost every activity. For instance, I remember vividly having once reserved a cab the night before for a 6 a.m. trip to the airport, then standing in my yard until 6:30 and finally jumping in the car to drive myself so I wouldn’t miss the plane. That kind of thing seems really unlikely now.
There are also all these people out there driving Uber and Lyft, and nearly every one of them I have met has been as polite and cool as you could ever imagine. I’m sure they serve as great ambassadors for our city when out-of-towners need a ride. Not to mention it’s a great way for people to make a dime on their own steam.
Yeah, I know this column sounds like a commercial for Uber, and no, I’m not getting free rides for a year or anything. The reason I wanted to write about what’s happened since Uber started here is that it also serves as a very fine example of something our City Council and mayor had tremendous friction over at the time, that in retrospect seems stupid to have fought about.
Can you imagine how easily things would have moved through the council if everyone knew the difference Uber would make? City leaders would have been champing at the bit to vote for it and watch DUIs plunge.
These days the mayor and council are locked in a legal battle over power and authority, and we’ve heard pretty much zero about any progress in their conflict since the judge ordered them to mediation two months ago. Two months of mediation doesn’t offer much hope there’s going to be a good outcome. If not, then it’s off to court and after that probably to the state Supreme Court. This fighting could last the majority of the terms they were all elected to last year.
These things they’re arguing about today might well be the Uber of tomorrow. “Mediate, alleviate, try not to hate,” that’s what INXS said, right? City leaders, it’s time to get a move on.
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