Two years ago, at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., the CEO of an upstart tech company groused to me that growth was being stymied by meddlesome local regulators propping up entrenched interests. Travis Kalanick’s idea, the sedan-on-demand app Uber, was just getting going at the time, and he had designs on taxi-intensive locales like Las Vegas.
“Vegas, I wanna be there, but they have a lot of protectionism for the cab industry,” he said. “Gambling is legal in Nevada. Prostitution is legal in Nevada. Uber is not.”
Well, gosh, when ya put it that way! Indeed, it’s easy to drink the Uber Kool-Aid, especially if you—like me—love technology, idolize Silicon Valley disrupters and despise legacy organizations so accustomed to power and privilege that they’ve forgotten how to innovate or try to improve their customer service. Thus, I sat and nodded that afternoon like an unhinged Pez dispenser, awash in the seemingly intuitive wisdom being spouted by one of our newest tech millionaires.
Now I’m not so sure. I’ve used Uber in Washington and New York, always when I was stuck in a place far from a taxi stand and in a hurry. In a few instances, I wasn’t sure where I was, so the app’s ability to locate me via GPS made life dramatically easier. I also was happy to pay through the app, saving me the traditional fumble for my wallet.
In Vegas, however, we don’t need Uber. We just need a better, more modern cab service and more logical regulations on limos and town cars. With an exceedingly powerful, centralized authority ruling the industry, this should be pretty easy to pull off. So far, though, in the two years since my conversation with Kalanick, that authority has taken no steps to change with the times. The desire to circle the bright-yellow wagons is understandable, but this young century is already littered with the carcasses of once-mighty businesses that realized too late the world was inexorably changing.
Here’s the dirty little secret about Uber: There is no dirty little secret. It’s made up of concepts so simple and reasonable they can easily be co-opted. Everything Uber wants would, if done right, also benefit existing taxi and limo drivers.
How far behind the tech curve are Vegas cab and limo companies? Well, the iPhone App Store offers just two apps that are even vaguely relevant to Vegas customers. The promisingly named Vegas Taxi does nothing but list what the fare should be between McCarran and various hotels. It debuted two years ago and has never been updated, so folks wanting to go to the Cromwell, Delano or Quad/Linq/Whatever are out of luck.
The other app, iTaxi, is just waiting for Vegas cabbies to tap into it. It works much like Uber: GPS tells it where you are, tap a button to summon a vehicle, pay through the app—except it routes car requests not to a shadow army of drivers but to the existing, established companies. Sadly, try it in Vegas and it will reply: “Bummer! There are no taxis available in your area yet. Please tell your next taxi driver about iTaxi.”
While iTaxi doesn’t have cabbies in Vegas, it does have a website, lasvegas.itaxi.ws, where riders can post if they’ve lost something in a cab ride. That’s in contrast to the Nevada Taxicab Authority’s red-lettered warning indicating that “The taxi cab authority does NOT maintain a Lost Property or Lost & Found for items left in taxi cabs.”
Uber’s biggest impediment in Vegas is also the stupidest rule, that customers must reserve a town car or limo an hour in advance and pay for a minimum of an hour’s use. How much business and money have properly licensed limo drivers lost because they were forced to idle despite the existence of willing customers? Maybe once upon a time it was more bureaucratic and labor-intensive to take a reservation, find a driver, dispatch him, give him directions, bill the customer and send the driver on to the next haul. Not anymore. If I’m missing some big idea behind this rule, would somebody enlighten me?
This situation reminds me of how former Review-Journal publisher Sherm Frederick doddered and ignored shifts in the newspaper business, so accustomed to dominating the local market and enjoying fat profit margins that he didn’t care when his circulation stagnated even as the city’s population exploded. Then, when it came time to adapt to a radically changing marketplace, he was clueless and hostile.
Unlike Sherm’s predicament, there’s still plenty of time for the transportation biz to change tactics. Craigslist and Google News were genuinely new ways of doing what a printed newspaper used to do, but Uber’s actually not. Rather, it’s just a reaction to the stodgy business practices of the existing regime and a wake-up call to serve customers better. The taxi companies should consider themselves warned.