24 Nov 2016


Last week, I met Gustavo, Guy, and Juan. They were friendly, well-behaved and chatty motorists. They work on a golf course, in flooring, or as a musician. And they drove me through the traffic madness of Los Angeles in their clean, modern and in one case even hybrid-powered cars. They stuck to a route dynamically calculated by Google, taking into account current traffic conditions. Gustavo offered me chilled bottled water.

Today, I met Ivan. Or Evo. Or possibly Evan; it's hard to say from the scribble on the paper receipt he handed me at the end of a 20 minute, stop-and-go, round-about slog through Montréal's downtown in his beat-up taxi, whose passenger seat was covered in suspicious stains. While this guy didn't speak a word to his customer, he yapped on his phone non-stop.

Gustavo, Guy and Juan are part-time Uber X drivers. None of them considers driving a taxi to be their life's vocation, but they all told me how they appreciate the ease and flexibility of making a few extra bucks when they want to. They know that at the end of each trip, I will rate them on a 5-point scale, and they clearly make an effort to provide 5 star service. Similarly, they will rate me, giving me an incentive to be just as personable.

Uber has revolutionized the transportation business, and in the process has become the best-funded Sillicon Valley start-up company ever. It smartly connects supply and demand, prices competitively but dynamically, and uses technology and peer reviews to ensure excellent standards of service. It is also very convenient for business travellers: Passengers link their credit card to the app, with trips being billed automatically. Gone is the frantic search for (often foreign) cash, and instead of illegible paper scraps, the company sends perfectly formatted email receipts that can go directly into expense reporting.

One can now hail an Uber in nearly 540 cities around the world, and I have done so in many countries, often grateful for the way in which the app helps overcoming language barriers.

Of course, I also use Uber in Montréal, but not as often as I like to. It is not by choice that I end up in the taxis of Ivan and his ilk, but because of their effots to block the newcomer at every turn. In a typically French attempt to block progress and innovation, and defend entrenched monopolies, taxi drivers have been staging demonstrations, blockades, and even acts of vandalism against UberX vehicles throughout the summer. In none of their arguments did "customer preference" ever matter.

In an effort to find a compromise, Québec's provincial government has now agreed on a 12 month pilot project,  under which UberX becomes more regulated (and more expensive), but is officially sanctioned to operate, although prime spots such as airport pick-ups remain off limits.

The increased paperwork requirements under the deal has led to a - hopefully temporary - drop in UberX drivers active in the city, which is how I ended up in yet another shabby taxi today. But in the longer term, the superior product will likely prevail.

Gustavo, Guy and Juan struggled to believe when I told them of the intimidation and vandalism their peers in Montréal have to deal with. Here's to hoping that even in Québec, Uber's innovative disruptors will soon see the obsolete taxi fleet fade in the rear-view mirror.

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1 Nov 2016

Retro Metro

50 years ago, Montréal was readying itself to celebrate its 325th birthday. And to host a very big party: Expo 67, considered the 20th century's most successful World Fair.

The other big birthday gift the city (or more specifically, its spendthrift mayor Jean Drapeau) gave itself was a subway. These days, the métro is celebrating its first half century of service.

It does so with fanfare - literally: As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, Montréal's Symphony Orchestra premiered a purpose-written piece inspired by the sounds of the trains. Unfortunately, I missed the performances, but I imagine it must sound somewhat similar to Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231

Yes, that oeuvre represented an accelerating steam engine. But Montréal's métro isn't much more modern: The most benevolent way to describe its rolling stock would be "vintage". The trains have not changed in 50 years, and still ooze of the sixties, with their neon lights and dot-matrix displays. Only in the past months, after years of delay courtesy of the standard inept cronyism, have new trains started arriving.

They will bring a breath of fresh air - albeit not too fresh, for they are still not air-conditioned. Why not? Because Montréal's subway, following the well-honed French tradition of function follows form that also gave the city an Olympic Stadium with a retractable roof that can't support snow, was built with inadequate ventilation. This means it is uncomfortably hot at any time of the year, and there is no way to evacuate the surplus heat that air-conditioned trains would blow off.

While the city prides itself on the public art installed at each station, and their individualized designs (many look like Ken Adam's movie sets), it tends to keep mum on the fact that even the stations with escalators all include at least one unavoidable flight of stairs, frustrating people in wheelchairs or prams and requiring the very costly, and slow, refitting with elevators.

Novelty in the last 50 years has been limited. In 2009,  12 years after Hong Kong, the transit operator started using RFID cards for tickets, but it has continued its restrictive ticketing practices dating back to scratch-card days ever since. More recently, screens indicating time to the next departure appeared, although they still fail to provide accurate information when it is needed most, namely when something is going awry. And while the city has been growing steadily since 1966, the metro has not kept pace: Several planned extensions have been abridged or cancelled, and to this day they remain subject to the political mood of the day.

Shortcomings notwithstanding, the métro remains a safe, largely reliable and efficient way of inner-city transport. 50 years after its inauguration, it doesn't just save time travelling. It also lets you travel back in time.

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