Uber careers a ‘scenic route’ compared to taxi jobs, according to ex-cabbies Irene Galea - JOUR 2202

Uber and traditional taxi companies compete for customers in New York City.

Hashim Ali spends his nights driving around Ottawa, giving rides to strangers – often, drunk students. Sometimes, he is out until 4 a.m. This is his job. The twist: he loves it.

Ali works for Uber Ottawa, following a trend of taxi drivers making the switch. He says he has never enjoyed working more. “I offer candy, I offer water…” he smiles, relaxing in the driver’s seat as he cruises down Bank Street. “After giving 4,600 rides with Uber, I still have a 4.9 star rating out of five.”

Hashim Ali keeps water and candy on hand for his customers.

Before switching to Uber six months ago, Ali drove cabs for Capital Taxi for ten years. According to a 2015 Metro News article, there are 1,188 taxicabs in Ottawa, shared between about 2,600 licenced drivers.

Though statistics are not available, Ali says that many of his former peers are following in his footsteps.

“A lot of taxi drivers are becoming Uber drivers because they already have that experience,” he says. “It's not that big of a transition: all you have to do is sign up online with Uber.”

“It's not that big of a transition: all you have to do is sign up online with Uber.”

In 2015, Uber reported $1.5 billion in revenue and a total of 160,000 employees. According to their website, they currently have drivers in 542 cities worldwide.

This rise of popularity is partially due to their cheap fares. According to a study by The10and3.com, Uber passengers can expect to save 50% in Toronto and 44% in Ottawa relative to a traditional cab.

Henok Mengistu, who drove cabs for a decade before switching to Uber in September, says that money was a major factor in the decision. “You didn’t always make money, especially now that Uber is a competitor,” he explains. Mengistu says that the first $120 he made every day would go to his company, and he could only keep what he made past that sum.

According to Mengustu, taxi drivers have to work late into the evening in order to make enough to pay their fees.

Additionally, Mengistu says he paid $2500 a month towards car rental, dispatch and insurance fees. According to 2015 stats collected by Metro News, Ottawa also collects two annual fees from licensed cab drivers on top of these payments: a $584 fee to renew a taxi plate and a $217 fee to renew a taxi driver’s license.

The City of Ottawa collects extra fees from cab drivers.

He says that not owing the cab company makes him feel much more relaxed on the job. “You don't owe any money to Uber when you start,” he says. “There's no stress that someone will come after you for fees.”

According to Ali Jama, who drove cabs for three years before switching to Uber this fall, this economic flexibility is very attractive for drivers in the cab industry thinking of switching. "You use your own phone, your own car, and you decide when to work. It's almost as if it's your own business.”

Jama says that independence was one of his key motivators for making the leap. “I have three kids, and my wife goes to school. I drive them there in the morning, and pick them up after school,” he explains. “With a taxi, I would have to meet up with a partner to switch cars – I don't have to do that with Uber.”

Jama says that being able to use his own car for Uber makes it feel like his own business.

Though Uber clearly has merits for drivers, some argue that it is not as safe for either passengers or drivers as a regulated taxi system. Though this assertion is difficult to quantify, Jama says that he feels safer driving for Uber, and has not yet had a bad experience.

He believes that this has something to do with the mutual respect between passenger and driver. “You’re not working for them,” he says. “They see you as an equal.”

He recalls, however, more than one past experience when driving a cab put him in harm’s way. One time last year, a passenger demanded he pull over on an empty road.

Some argues that Uber is not as safe because it is not as strictly regulated as taxi corporations.

“He started demanding cash; ‘give me all your money,’ he says. “I called the cops from the cab. Things ended up okay, but I definitely felt very threatened.”

"Things ended up okay, but I definitely felt very threatened.”

Mengistu says he feels just as safe driving for Uber as he did with taxis, and that passengers should feel safe too. He says that both services conduct extensive security checks, and that this is the best way to ensure a passenger’s safety.

He points to one small difference: “The only thing we don’t have that [taxis] do is a camera. If Uber says to put up a camera, though, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

Uber responds to those who doubt their safety precautions by pointing to their app, which uses a GPS to track the car. Passengers can follow along on their screens as their Uber driver comes to pick them up and throughout the ride. They can also send a map of their trip and their location to a third party to keep an eye on.

Ashley Blake prefers Ube because of the GPS Feature.

Uber customer Ashley Blake says that this feature makes all the difference for her when choosing between Uber and cabs. She once had a bad experience in a cab - the driver took her on a roundabout course against her suggestions, spiking up the fare and making her very uncomfortable. Click the button below to listen to her story.

Ashley Blake loves the GPS tracking feature.

Safety dilemmas aside, some cabbies are still opting to work for the modern ride-sharing service. What impact could this exodus have on existing taxi drivers? A loss of value for those licenses, for one.

To get the license – or “medallion” – in the first place can be a long and tiring process for some drivers. According to an article from the Ottawa Citizen, medallions in the city can go for up to $140,000, down from a 2013 average of $200,000.

According to Jama, taxi drivers often save for years to be able to afford a medallion. Now that drivers can easily sign up with Uber and work for free, they don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a licence.

Uber's entrance onto the streets could mean a loss of value for taxi plates and licenses.

Though this is great for new drivers, those who own the licenses and plates could be in trouble. If they planned to re-sell it later, they are losing their insurance. “This could cause hardship if they have outstanding debt from buying it, or are planning their retirement around it,” says Kate Porter in an article for CBC.

Additionally, Uber sets a precedent for taxi fares, which could bring down the average income of a standard cab driver. According to an article from Boing Boing, “Uber can set consumer prices and supplier pay, dialing them up and down to maximize profit while discouraging new competitors.”

Ali doesn’t think that taxi drivers should be hesitant to make the switch. Instead of worrying about the problems Uber could cause for the taxi industry, Ali prefers to be optimistic. “I'm different because I look at the whole picture,” he smiles. “I think about the hundreds of thousands of people who may need rides. Taxis couldn’t possibly handle all of it.”

Thousand of people fill Toronto's Dundas Square - a testament to the necessity for Uber, according to Ali.

Ali says he will continue to drive for Uber for as long as he can, comfortable with the knowledge that he can support his family on his own time. And the verdict for Uber’s progress: no stop signs, as far as the eye can see.

Related Links

How Risky is your Uber? Maybe more than you think - CNET

We've Stopped Trusting Institutions and Started Trusting Individuals - Ted Talks

Taxi 101: Getting the Lowdown on a Divided Industry

Ottawa Taxi Licensing

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