Daily Archives: October 14, 2014

Ride with Uber. Chances are, you’ll get there in one piece

Ah, Uber… the latest high-tech industry disruptor. The “ride-sharing” service that’s just like a cab company without all that pesky regulation. The service that actively, and aggressively, resists any attempt to regulate its business. Now operating in the Burlington market, as the Freeploid reported last week:

Uber will provide rides through the low-cost service called uberX, which uses local drivers in their own cars. Burlington is now the 216th city on the Uber map, and the company will build up to 24/7 on-demand service.

The ‘Loid’s April Burbank went on to detail the city’s response to Uber, which arrived at a time when Burlington was already pondering how to update its taxi regulations, and to dutifully reproduce the complaints of local cab operators and Uber’s reassurances that its services are reliable and safe.

Safe. Hmm. That’s an issue that Burbank failed to explore further. And neither did Seven Days’ Alicia Freese, in a pair of stories that focused on Uber’s successes in other markets and the uncertain reaction from local regulators. All this, even though a quick Google search will reveal a host of problematic experiences and near-brushes with abduction and assault, to which Uber’s standard reaction is “Oops, sorry, here’s your money back, now go away.”

Let’s review some recent trouble spots on Uber’s record, shall we?

A woman in Los Angeles boarded an Uber vehicle for a ride home from a party. Instead, the driver took her 20 miles out of the way

…arriving in a dark, empty parking lot in the middle of the night despite her repeated protests. When she tried to exit the car, her driver locked the doors—only when she caused a commotion and screamed did he finally return her home. What should have been a quick ride took over two hours.

Uber’s initial response: a  partial refund for an “inefficient route.” It later made a full refund. Meanwhile, the woman is staying in a hotel because the driver is still out there somewhere and knows her home address.

A couple weeks ago, an Uber driver in San Francisco got into an argument with his passengers, stopped the car, attacked one of the riders with a hammer blow to the head, and drove away.

Oh, and here’s a thing: a Chicago TV station sent out a bunch of passengers to take rides in Uber cars, “and found not a single driver knew his way around the city.” And worse:

NBC5 then ran background checks on each of the drivers and discovered ticket after ticket — for speeding, illegal stops and running lights. One driver had 26 traffic tickets, yet still passed Uber’s background check.

The station then tested Uber’s driver-screening program by submitting an application from a reformed criminal with “a three-page rap sheet.” She was hired four weeks later, to which she said:

“I was kind of baffled, still am baffled how they let me in,” Locke said. “If I had been offered a job like this, knowing that my life of crime was in burglaries and robberies, …I would pick somebody up, take them to their airport, and my second thought would be: Go back to that house.”

The NBC5 report contains a whole lot of other nasty stuff, including an Uber driver who hit and killed a six-year-old — and who turned out to have a prior conviction for reckless driving; a driver accused of sexual assault by a passenger; and a driver whose car was totaled, and who found that neither Uber’s insurance nor his own would pay for the damages.

Thousands of people have had good experiences with Uber, and any industry has its problems. But Uber’s whole business model is built on avoiding responsibility for those problems. It fights regulation; it doesn’t buy commercial auto insurance for drivers; it classifies its drivers as independent contractors to shift liability away from the company.

It’s the ultimate in caveat emptor: let the buyer beware, let the contractor beware, let bystanders beware. In fact, let everybody beware except Uber itself. And Uber skims the profits.

City officials should think long and hard about the totality of Uber’s track record before allowing it to operate. That consideration should include the above incidents, and Uber’s clearly inadequate driver-screening process, which Seven Days and the Burlington Free Press either overlooked or didn’t think worthy of its readers’ attention.

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One man’s cheap shot is another’s cogent criticism. Or, why I bag on the Free Press so much

Those who follow Vermont media accounts on Twitter may have enjoyed a little Columbus Day entertainment by way of a Tweetfight between staffers at the Burlington Free Press and Seven Days, which the Freeploid has long looked down at, but which has become a powerful competitor in the battle for print advertising.

It began with Freeploid vet Mike Donoghue taking a little poke at WCAX:

This was a reference to WCAX mistakenly broadcasting a crime scene photo including the body of a murder victim, which the Freeploid wrote up at great length. Seven Days’ Mark Davis Tweeted a reply about the ‘Loid “firing cheapshots at WCAX.” To which the Freeploid’s Adam Silverman replied “Is someone from Seven Days really one to talk about cheap shots?”

Davis pointed out the “thinly veiled glee” the Free Press was exhibiting over a competitor’s mistake. Donoghue and Silverman accused Seven Days of ignoring the story, to which Paul Heintz replied that he hadn’t gotten a call back from WCAX.

This exchange included two contraditory Tweets from Donoghue. First, he accused Seven Days of ignoring the story because the two entities are media partners; and then he insinuated that WCAX won’t return calls from Seven Days because of some unstated offense.

Which is it, Mike? They’re in bed together, or they can’t stand each other?

Anyway, that’s when I lobbed a couple of spitballs from the back of the class, and Silverman went all Charlie Bronson.

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I can just see him grabbing his crotch as he hit “SEND.”

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this post: an explanation of why I so often criticize the Free Press. Or, in the words of Mr. Silverman, why I deliver so many cheap shots.

Basically, it’s all about the words of Voltaire, best known as delivered by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben:

With great power comes great responsibility.

The Burlington Free Press is the number-one print publication in Vermont. It ought to be the unquestioned leader in serious journalism. But, because Gannett keeps sucking out its precious bodily fluids to satiate the endless thirst of stockholders, we’re left with a depleted newspaper that can’t serve its readers well but still occupies the largest niche in the Vermont news market.

It doesn’t occupy that niche in any satisfying way, but there it sits, and because of the structure of the news marketplace, nobody can dislodge it.

The Burlington Free Press has great power. To be charitable, it does an inconsistent job of exercising that power. To be less charitable, it’s an almost daily disappointment. So when somebody like Mike Donoghue or Aki Soga positions himself as a guardian of the public trust — and yet expects to be insulated from the kinds of accountability or transparency he expects of everyone else (including WCAX) — well, it makes the rest of us throw up in our mouths a little. Likewise, when Jim Fogler or Michael Townsend serve up a column’s worth of bullshit and expect us to gobble it down like steak.

Too often, the Free Press comes across as arrogant and condescending. And its performance fails to justify its overweening sense of superiority. That’s why the Free Press gets so much criticism. And the occasional cheap shot. Expect both to continue.