No. 93: What if Uber disappeared? 🗑🚗

A story in two underwhelming acts

Act I

As we departed the Royal Albert Hall last weekend, heavenly Bach still soothing our ears, we were blindsided by a pixellated sight no milliennial should bear.

We couldn’t get an Uber.

Or even a Lyft.

Bolt? Fat chance.

After a notable period of sighing and cursing (3-4 minutes, tops), I resigned myself to more traditional modes of transport. One foot in front of the other, scenery slowly passing by, the wind barely bothering my pristine locks, I walked.

Then we took a train.

An underground train - and that part is important, because I might as well have descended to the underworld for a tête-à-tête with Hades himself, such was the white-hot atmosphere down there. Lucifer’s embrace would offer chilly relief, were it to follow a journey in that infernal carriage.

“Tonight, no Uber. Tonight, I am a Tuber”, I thought, the heat only slightly melting my perspicacity.

Act II

I was back in Belfast last week to see family, when I was blindsided by a pixellated sight no milliennial should bear.

I couldn’t get an Uber.

Etc. and so on.

I took a bus. I got to where I was going.

I also got to reconnect with some of my fellow Belfastians, but apart from that it was fine.


Uber is having a bit of trouble at the moment. Uber always is, but this is a little different.

In London, a number of people have reported very similar stories to my own. In more prosaic terms, admittedly.

Apparently, new services are offering bonuses to entice drivers away from Uber. In the UK, a lot of drivers have also left the country due to the self-imposed sanctions of Brexit. And lo, we walk, we Tube, or we wait. It’s hell, I tell you.

Except it’s not altogether so terrible.

One very quickly finds an alternative and, while our brains have quickly adjusted to the soothing convenience of modern living, the tiniest bit of friction can still be endured. After 3-4 minutes of sighing and cursing, of course.

For Uber, the fault lines run deeper and wider than just London and Belfast, however.

Their business model accepts huge losses to subsidise those affordable rides we all take for granted.

So it seems timely to ask:

For how long would we care if Uber just disappeared?

For all the “disruption” talk, what would be its lasting impact on our cities?

There was an article on Medium recently, called “End of the Line for Uber”. It was written in that overconfident, definitive style that must get clicks on Medium. Beneath the hyperbole, there was some substance to the argument.

The author argues that we would see a concrete impact in the event of Uber’s demise, albeit not a positive one. Uber has restricted investment in public transport infrastructure and increased congestion, he points out, without paying drivers sufficiently or protecting passengers at all.

“I live in Burbank, where Ubers were never more than 5 minutes away. Now, a 30 minute wait is common — and the fare is comparable to the licensed taxi company, which is literally one app away from achieving feature parity with Uber.”

This last point is particularly apposite.

I was amazed last week that local taxi firms in Belfast now have Uber-style features on their apps. I was flabbergasted that they even had apps.

I also recall reading that in Paris, the licensed taxi drivers had taken etiquette lessons to help compete with Uber. If you’ve been in an Uber, you’ll know that that’s a low bar to limbo under, but the surly Parisians managed it.

They also invested in an app that would offer a booking service with a five-minute time window. Uber typically offers a ten or fifteen minute reservation window.

That’s the thing with all this bro-friendly “disruption” talk. The process is ongoing; the established businesses can learn and adapt. If the self-appointed disruptors end up raising prices just to try and break even, their business model was unsustainable all along. They also lose a very appealing, competitive advantage when they do so.

I wouldn’t go so far as that Medium article’s brutal conclusion: “The sooner Uber dies, the better.”

But I would say that if it ever did go the way of the dodo, its residual impact would be seen most in its rivals. The customers would get along just fine. Our cities might even improve, too.

Chart of the week 📊

I took a look at the ecommerce revenues of the biggest retailers in the US, in 2019 and 2020, then made some charts.

You will expect Amazon’s continued dominance, although the scale of that dominance is striking:

And here again, with figures and % increase from 2019 to 2020:

Many of these retailers shifted business from physical stores to their websites in 2020, of course.

Amazon has a significant advantage here, but you might also say it is in a position to be shot at.

That’s why I find it so intriguing that Amazon is starting to license its fulfilment services to other companies. It knows that they will start to get their act together. They may even work together to create alternatives that can compete.

To stave off the threat, Amazon would like to offer them access to its superior software and logistics. In return, it will receive a lot of valuable data on top of the additional revenues.

Amazon’s rivals will surely consider that trade-off carefully.

On a smaller scale, this story relays a similar situation with a retailer here in the UK:

  • Whatever Next? How a middle-of-the-road high-street chain became a retail powerhouse - The Guardian

Copy, Waste 🗑

TikTok is building an Augmented Reality effects studio. Yeah, like Snapchat and the other ones.

Not much else to say on that uninspiring story.

The Data Hater

It’s back! A semi-regular feature in which I rag on sub-par data viz.

This time: the neverending pie chart.

Triggered emails? You sure triggered this emailer, that’s for sure.

Other Reads

  • You are a network - Aeon

This is superb. It’s all about the “emerging theory of selfhood” that extends beyond the traditional ‘container’ of the individual body. Thought-provokin’ stuff.

  • The architecture of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics - Dezeen

  • CodeVox turns spoken, natural language into lines of code - VICE

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