Monday 16 July 2018

Adrian Weckler: Let's end wait for Dublin Uber

Uber has been granted permission to continue its London service Photo: PA
Uber has been granted permission to continue its London service Photo: PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Maybe it's time to look again at an Uber-style taxi system.

Last week, London agreed to give Uber a licence. It means quicker pickups at a lower cost.

In Ireland, the company can't operate a similar system. But how long will that last?

Dublin badly needs something that works more efficiently than our present setup. In particular, the country's capital - which is in the midst of an economic boom - needs a system that can respond to predictable surges in demand.

At present, what we have just isn't fit for purpose.

In Dublin, it is now the norm for a business person to wait 45 minutes or an hour for a taxi. If it rains - unlikely in Ireland, I know - it's even worse.

Anyone reading this who has attended a conference or business event in the capital in recent months will know what I'm talking about. It's often a lottery for overseas business travellers as to whether they will get a taxi back to the airport in time.

This isn't the fault of individual taxi drivers, or even the companies. The legal system governing taxis simply isn't keeping up with the needs of the rest of society.

Last week, I spent some time in Seattle, a city that is booming in a similar way to Dublin.

The West Coast city has many pluses and minuses. But even without a New York or London style metro service, it's always possible to get somewhere within 30 minutes.

This is because the city, like many American cities, has fessed up to the realisation that it is not going to lay down substantial public transport systems. But because it also doesn't want everyone reaching to buy their own car, it allows for hire systems such as Uber and Lyft.

These companies are essentially comprised of private-hire vehicles. From a macro planning perspective, the result is that young people, as well as business people, can travel quickly to almost anywhere else in the city for under $10 or $15.

This makes it far more affordable than taxi cabs. But critically, it is also superb at responding to spikes and troughs in demand. During bad weather or a large event, for example, more drivers are encouraged to respond to demand through fares being raised.

For me as a user, it's a minor pain to have to pay $9 instead of $7 to get to where I need to go. But it's worth it to know I'm guaranteed to get a lift within 15 or 20 minutes.

Dublin faces a similar problem to Seattle. At this point, we need to accept that we're not going to invest substantially in public transport systems to meet our growing population.

This is regrettable, but at least it's clear.

Yes, we have buses and a small handful of light rail routes (serving a few narrow slivers of the city). I'm an avid user of this infrastructure whenever possible, especially the bus (which is arguably the most efficient form of public transport available).

But when travelling to other places in the city for work-related purposes, I'll almost always plan to walk. This isn't because I'm any kind of fitness fanatic, but because it's usually quicker and always more reliable than any other option available, unless it's to an office near the 10pc of the city covered by light rail. In other words, I know for sure where I'll be within 30 or 40 minutes, instead of wondering whether my taxi will turn up within that time.

This doesn't mean that Uber's exact model is necessarily the answer.

The taxi industry's objections to Uber-style services are not without warrant. In particular, there have been problems with safety in Uber both in the US and in Europe.

But it should not be outside the ability of regulators and legislators to come up with more robust safety systems.

There is also the issue of job security and wages. The kind of competition that an Uber-style service would bring would put pressure on the upper end of a taxi driver's earnings.

As such, representatives of the industry have every right - and even a duty - to protect their livelihoods.

But some of these arguments were the same ones used more than a decade ago when taxi services were liberalised. Younger readers may not recall it, but the 1990s saw a protected system where taxi plates could be bought and sold for €100,000 because they were rare, controlled assets.

Because of this, it was normal to wait one or two hours for a taxi during busy times. It was disastrous and unsustainable.

At the time of liberalisation, taxi drivers blocked the streets in protest. Ultimately, though, the Government had to act. It had to balance the (legitimate) claims of individual taxi drivers with the needs of the rest of society.

To be fair, it's arguably not quite as bad now as it was then. But it's considerably worse than a few years ago. The maddening aspect of it is that the difficulties are for entirely logical and predictable reasons - economic growth.

Given that we clearly do not intend to meet that need with proportionately increased public transportation, we probably should start thinking about an alternative method.

That means a new tech platform that's fundamentally different from the old Hailo-style ceilings our current taxi system limits itself to.

It means acting before a new generation of young workers come to the conclusion that their parents formed years ago - that the only way to get guaranteed flexible transportation around the city is to drive yourself into work every day.

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