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In the ride-sharing debate, taxis are underselling their previous advantage: Teitel

Ride-hailing services may offer free snacks and other perks, but they can’t match a veteran cabbie’s knowledge of the roads, Emma Teitel writes.

In their PR war with ride-hailing services like Uber, taxi companies are underselling their biggest strength: their drivers' expert knowledge, Emma Teitel writes.

TODD KOROL / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

In their PR war with ride-hailing services like Uber, taxi companies are underselling their biggest strength: their drivers' expert knowledge, Emma Teitel writes.

This week, the Toronto Sun published an article sponsored by our city’s most visible cab company, Beck Taxi. The piece is a predictably fluffy ode to the 50-year-old orange and green cab service; specifically, to its renewed commitment to customer service and its development in 2012 of “Canada’s first taxi-ordering app.” The article also predictably includes what is presumably a not-so-veiled dig at the popular and controversial ride-hailing service Uber. In the words of Beck operations manager Kristine Hubbard, who is quoted throughout the piece: “We see ourselves as a company made up of people using technology. Not technology using people.”

This appears to be the go-to PR tactic of cab companies trying to survive in the age of ride-hailing services: they throw shade at the likes of Uber and Lyft, while at the same time trying to keep up with them. In August, Hubbard told Flare magazine that Uber’s presence was a “wake-up call” because it inspired Beck to improve its customer service with cleaner vehicles and courteous drivers. Diamond taxi, another Toronto cab staple, offers passengers an Uber-like app through which they can rate their rides. And recently, a cab driver in the city offered me a bottle of water.

All of this makes perfect sense. It’s entirely reasonable that cab companies are trying to adapt to a new urban travel climate in which many passengers are accustomed to getting free beverages and breath mints every time they climb into an Uber. But it’s my belief that in an effort to compete with Uber, traditional cab companies are selling themselves short. Despite all their griping about the new ride-hailing order, cab companies continually neglect to mention that they offer something that Uber, in my mind, cannot: a fleet of drivers who actually know instinctively where they are going.

I was an Uber addict until I realized that if I needed to get somewhere on time in a pinch, the service failed me. Drivers, in my experience, are kind and courteous and they always have snacks on hand. But because many of them are new to professional driving and unfamiliar with the downtown core, they are sorely lacking a sense of direction.

Cabbies, on the other hand, have a deep knowledge of the city’s roads and an almost innate ability to problem solve when traffic or construction interrupts a standard route. This knowledge is not based on GPS or Waze; it is based on experience.

And when you are trying to get somewhere fast, experience matters. Yes, Uber drivers have access to navigation technology, but when that technology has a glitch or recalibrates, precious time is lost driving around in circles.

For many cab drivers, their work is a vocation, not a last resort or a way to make a few bucks on the side until a different opportunity emerges. Not long ago, I was running late for a meeting across town that I had intended to walk to. I hopped in a cab and explained my situation. The driver said: “I can get you there in 10 minutes without speeding.” And he did, via a series of alleyways, side streets and short turns only a veteran would know and, most importantly, only a veteran would know how to navigate confidently and quickly.

And yet, cab companies rarely appear to market this veterans’ knowledge, choosing instead to fearmonger about the danger of getting into an Uber. This tactic doesn’t work. Torontonians are not afraid of Uber. But we are afraid of being late. The cabbie motto, therefore, shouldn’t be “Arrive alive.” It should be “Arrive on time.” Or “Arrive in silence.”

Another cab-specific perk hardly ever mentioned? In addition to knowing where they are going, cab drivers are often aloof. They are content to give one-word answers and listen to talk radio without so much as making eye contact with the person in the back seat.

I’ve noticed a tendency among Uber evangelists to frame this aloofness in a negative light. “Uber drivers are so much friendlier than cabbies,” they say. And it’s true, they usually are. I have been asked by at least four Uber drivers what my Instagram handle is. One even told me that he began driving with Uber not only to make some extra money, “but to meet people.” That’s nice for him, but for a woman travelling alone, this kind of forwardness isn’t cute; it’s annoying and creepy. I do not get into cars with strangers to meet people. I get into cars with strangers to go places. Therefore, I have come to appreciate the cab driver-passenger relationship, which can be boiled down to a series of “turn here’s” and affirmative grunts.

Cab companies, take note: you should talk up what you’re actually good at, not what you wish you were good at. Because there are probably thousands of people in this city who would trade all the free bottled water in the world to quietly whip across town.

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