Thursday, March 26, 2015

Uber of the Nineteenth Century

1890s street traffic, San Francisco Call, January 19, 1896. (California Digital Newspaper Collection)

A year and a half ago I wrote a short piece about one of San Francisco’s 19th Century cab companies. It told the tale of Boston-based entrepreneur Theodore Gurney, who brought his specially designed cab system to the city, where it struggled against unions and licensing regulations, and eventually went belly-up. The full story can be read on the wonderful site, FoundSF:

I’ve been pleased by the interest people have shown in this piece, for instance by a blogger writing on another Gurney company operating in Dallas in the same period. I plan another post here soon with an update on what I've learned about Gurney cabs since I wrote the earlier story.

Certainly, the Gurney Cab story is interesting in and of itself, as an insight into transportation politics of the late 19th Century. At the same time, I did write the piece to be a sort of “sleeper.” intending that readers would make their own connections between the Gurney story and the present round of “innovation” in the cab industry, even if I didn’t state these directly in the article itself.

This was vindicated in a recent Grist article by Heather Smith, part of an excellent three-story investigation of the city’s current cab variations. Smith’s “Secret History of the Taxi Wars” delves into the history of cab regulation in San Francisco. Breaking the mold for journalists these days, she actually pays attention to history, drawing also on Charles Rathbone’s Taxi Library site. She grasps the connection between Gurney and Uber, and uses the great quote from the February 18, 1892 San Francisco Call:
What at first promised to be a relief from the high prices of the regular hackman proved on trial to be a delusion and a snare. With that discovery the early patrons soon returned to their old drivers and left the Gurneys to practice their overcharges on unsuspecting strangers.

... which can be read as a pretty good description of New Year’s Eve, 2015...

Even better, she ends with the recognition that there is nothing “inevitable” (or even especially novel) about the current push to deregulate the cab industry. Countering the dominant discourses of technological determinism and free-market millenarianism currently being churned out of Silicon Valley, Smith writes:
Sometimes taxi drivers have been independent contractors; sometimes they have been salaried employees with benefits and retirement funds. There’s not much stopping us today from having a taxi system like San Francisco had in the 1890s. There’s not much stopping us from having a taxi system like San Francisco had (or at least Yellow Cab did) in the 1970s, when drivers had health and welfare benefits, and four weeks of paid vacation.
The technology is going to change all the time. It’s our collective willingness to make rules and follow through on them that is going to determine how that change plays out.

This insight has relevance far beyond the field of taxicabs and urban transportation. It is no less than one of the most important lessons history can offer – that we are not in the grip of inevitable forces, and the form which the present and future can take is up to us.

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