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The biggest threat to Uber and Airbnb is the government

March 31, 2014, at 6:55 PM
 

Airbnb and Uber are now essential parts of your low-cost business travel experience, and each company has attracted attention befitting its innovative services. Both have also attracted the ire of entrenched cartels (the taxi and hotel industries), of regulators (who must somehow justify their jobs), and governments (who want money). But the attention-to-ire ratio is moving in the right direction.

I sing the praises of both services, and it's dawned on me why I like them so much.

This afternoon, as I got out of an UberX Prius driven by W___, I found myself telling him how much I appreciate Uber. I do that a lot. It's kind of a tic. But it dawned on me that the fact that I would say something nice to the driver at all, aside from a simple thank you, is the reason why both Airbnb and Uber are service industry game changers. TechCrunch noticed how both companies built "managed environments" that used "trust to generate liquidity." I think it's cool how Uber drivers in Washington, D.C., have figured out how to take you to Reagan-National Airport, despite ticket-giving police officers who think the service is illegal.

Fundamentally, each service personalizes the relationship between the person delivering it and the person who receives it. The market forces behind Uber and Airbnb encourage humans to cooperate and communicate.

Your Airbnb host, most often, will lend you his spare room. Before you arrive, you establish contact with him. Both of you set expectations. He can set whatever rules he wants, and you'll know them, so you can abide by them. (My Airbnb host, K___, goes to sleep at 10:00 p.m. Noted. I'll need to be quiet after 10. But I knew that. In advance.)

When you arrive, your Airbinb host becomes, temporarily at least, your friend — an instant concierge. The accommodations may not be as deluxe as the Ritz-Carlton, but the social experience is entirely more satisfying. And when you leave, you can rate him. It's in his interest to make your stay as comfortable as possible. It's in his direct financial interest to keep his extra room(s) clean, to ensure you have access to essentials, and to design the space to be attractive and unique. If you're a surly misanthrope who wants to be alone while you're on the road, you won't like Airbnb. You'll stay in a hotel. I'm guessing that people who browse Airbnb share the values of the company, and those who rent their rooms through the site are of like minds.

The Uber experience upends taxi culture. Forget about the fact that the car doesn't feel like a taxi; that's just superficial. Think about the interaction between you and your driver. If you're keen on using Uber, you will probably treat him or her with more respect than it would occur to you to extend to a cab driver. In turn, because you get to rate your experience, just mastering the basics of navigation won't suffice. W___ told me that he gets a kick every time a passenger tells him they love Uber. His other job, he said, forces him to listen to complaints all day. (He works at a used car lot). With Uber, he feels that passengers respect him.

He mentioned something to me that I, as a white guy, never really considered. It's sadly still a reality of life in America that cab drivers will often fail to pick up black passengers because they are black. Before they pick you up, Uber drivers get your first name only, and they can't turn down a customer once they arrive, absent some extreme circumstance. So long as the pricing is relatively equivalent, Uber makes it easier for a black person to get a taxi. Much, much easier. And that's kind of cool, in a way. Prejudice remains, but its effects, in this one social arena, are demolished. W__ told me that a number of his black passengers have told him how transformative Uber has been.

I worry that the government is going to mess things up. In Arlington, as I hinted above, it's not kosher for Uber to drop passengers off at the airport that's most convenient for Washington, D.C., travelers. That's because the county requires that every cab driver dropping someone off at DCA have a special "H" decal on their car, be licensed as a cab driver, and use a written manifest to record the ride. I understand how that might have been appropriate 20 years ago, but I easily see it today as the cartel protectionism that it is. You can still take an Uber to DCA. What you're going to have to do, a little, is fib. The driver will ask you to sit in the front seat of the car. He or she will remove from sight the iPhone or Android device that serves as the connection to Uber central. And since the fare is paid with a tap of a finger, your Uber trip to DCA looks just like it would had your friend dropped you off for free.

I understand the basic objections to loosely regulated personal services, but I would only worry about them if there were any evidence at all that the consenting adults who agree on a service show any signs of not appreciating the extra risk that comes from a ride with a stranger, or from a spare apartment room that is not attended to by a professional hotelier. Washington, D.C., wants to regulate Uber out of existence. So does San Francisco. Uber is having a hard time gaining entry to larger Texas cities where the demand for taxis is incredibly high and the supply is meager and controlled. Airbnb faces a host of regulatory challenges, too. I'm not a reactionary; I appreciate the need for government regulation. But here, it seems to me that regulation is on the side of reaction.

 

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