Should you be Ubering?
Whether you use the app to get around every day or see it as a safe option for a night out, chances are you’ve probably hopped into an Uber recently. MANDY WIENER asks what the fuss is about and why, despite international controversy, it’s still so popula
LET ME GOOGLE THAT.
Just superglue it. Let’s rollerblade. It’s called ‘verbifying’ – when a brand becomes a verb – and some marketers believe it’s the ultimate compliment. Without doubt, the latest brand being verbi ed in South Africa is Uber. But what exactly is this ‘Uber’ that has disrupted the local taxi industry, lled the glaring gap of public transport and o ered us a way to get home safely after having a few drinks?
‘Uber is a technology company and a smartphone application which connects riders to drivers around the city,’ says Uber Johannesburg GM, Alon Lits, at the bu ing Uber o ce in Parktown North, where aspirant drivers have congregated to be trained and registered. Evidently, word is spreading that there’s money to be made and they’re clamouring to get in on the action.
Once you have downloaded the app and registered a pro le, you can order a car to collect you at your location. The drivers are pretty much circling around the neighbourhood and whichever is closest, gets the order via the app. The service is cashless, with your pro le linked to your credit card. The app acts as the middleman between the driver and the passenger, lling the space between taxi service and technology company.
‘We’ve got two types of clients at Uber,’ Alon says. ‘On the driver side, they’re our partners, not our employees. We don’t own any of the vehicles. It’s quite a stringent process to partner with us: drivers, who use their own vehicles, have to have a professional driver’s permit and pass our criminal background checks. We generate income by taking a 20% service fee on the Uber product the lower-cost option .’
Uber arrived in South Africa in August 2013. By January 2015, the company announced that it had created around 2 000 jobs in the country and has set a target of 15 000 for the next two years. But the service has courted as much controversy here as it has around the world. Earlier this year, Uber was banned from operating in S o Paulo, Bra il, following a lawsuit brought by the city’s taxi drivers. Its legal status varies internationally – it’s banned in some countries, suspended in others and is facing lawsuits in many more. In April, Portugal joined the list of countries to ban or partially suspend the service, along with France, Spain and Germany. The company’s Paris o ces were raided by the police, while in South Korea nearly 30 people were charged with running an illegal taxi rm.
But some cases have been more severe than that, like in India, where the Uber service was banned in Delhi following the rape of a female passenger in December 2014. According to the woman, her attacker was a known sexual o ender but Uber neglected to check his background. In a statement posted on Uber’s website a day after the incident, Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, called the crime ‘horri c’ and ‘despicable’, and Uber added new safety features, including a panic button, to its app in India. Travis himself is no stranger to controversy, following sexist comments he had made in February 2014. In an interview with maga ine, where he was asked to respond to his skyrocketing popularity due to the app’s success, Travis reportedly said: ‘Yeah, we call that Boob-er’. Later in that same year, a senior executive for the app suggested the company should spend $1 million (about
R12 million) to dig up dirt on journalists who have written negative articles about the app. It is no wonder that the app and its team are sometimes seen as Silicon Valley’s lessthan-desirables.
In South Africa, Uber has faced the biggest clampdown in Cape Town, where 33 vehicles were impounded in January this year for not having public transport licences. The Metered Taxi Council of the Western Cape called for Uber to be shut down and has staged protests against them. In Johannesburg, metered taxi drivers at OR Tambo International Airport have also targeted Uber drivers, insisting they need the requisite licences to operate there.
Despite all this, passengers have generally welcomed the innovative industry shake-up. ‘We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the uptake of Uber in South Africa,’ Alon says. ‘We are starting to see isolated incidents of intimidation in Johannesburg, unfortunately, but we are committed to solving those issues. In Cape Town, the situation has improved a lot. There was some tension earlier this year but operators are coming around to partner on the Uber platform.’
Alon thinks there is a problem of regulation lagging behind innovation, saying the country’s laws weren’t prepared for Uber. ‘If you look at the Land Transportation Act, it was written before smartphone technology was contemplated so there is ambiguity. What we’ve seen are di erent interpretations of the same legislation between Cape Town and Johannesburg, for example. Obviously, if we’re going to change legislation, that is going to take time.’
In South Africa, where the threat of crime is top of mind, the company has had to place added emphasis on ensuring the safety of both drivers and passengers. There is the built-in functionality of the app – when you book your trip you see your driver’s name and photo, as well as the vehicle and the number plate so you know who to expect. ‘There is an electronic audit trail so if something were to go wrong, we would provide the authorities with the information,’ Alon says. ‘And if you’re travelling by yourself and not feeling safe, you can share the information with a friend, including your estimated time of arrival, and they can track your trip on the app.’ Another safety feature in the pipeline is phone number anonymisation, which keeps your phone number invisible to the driver – all communication between the two of you goes through an automated call centre. There is also the driver-rating system where passengers and drivers can rate each other. But Alon is reluctant to say if there have been incidents of misconduct in South Africa, like some of those reported by women riders and drivers in the US. ‘We’re doing thousands of trips everyday. Thankfully, nothing serious has happened, but if there is an incident we address it. We have banned clients from getting access to the app because their behaviour has been inappropriate – for instance, a compromise of driver safety – which we don’t tolerate. We’ve even had an instance where a rider hit a driver. That would de nitely lead to a ban.’
Uber is also looking at introducing a biometric veri cation system, which could require a ngerprint for access, in addition to a password. It’s also considering an SOS button on the app, like the one introduced in India. However, in South Africa, it would send an alert to a private security company rather than the police.
In an ambitious announcement earlier this year, Uber said that it is working towards creating a million jobs for women around the world by 2020. Controversially, UN Women pulled out of the project just days after publicly announcing its support, stating concerns about Uber’s safety record with women and the treatment of its drivers – both male and female. Currently, around 14% of Uber’s drivers worldwide are female, with the number sitting at just 4% in South Africa – the result of a combination of security concerns and stigma of the industry being maledominated. Traditionally, female metered taxi drivers drive alone at night, carrying large amounts of cash, without knowing who they’re going to pick up or where they’re going. Alon says Uber o ers a safe alternative to women riders and drivers. But the best way to really gauge how female drivers feel about the security risk is to ask them.
uali ed horticulturalist Gladness Momobela, 41, became a metered taxi driver when she grew tired of dirt under her ngernails. When all her colleagues in the industry began running to Uber, she also signed up. The single mother of one says it’s more lucrative, admin free and safer than working on her own. Uber drivers could earn up to R30 000 per month before tax. She says that while her family was initially concerned for her safety, it has never been a concern for her. ‘They said I was doing a man’s job, but I said the money is the same. I always said to them, “If there is anything that is going to happen to me, it will nd me in
UBER WOMEN BEHIND THE WHEEL
my bedroom, it will nd me in my kitchen. I’m not going to be afraid to go out there”.’
Gladness, who has enlisted three female friends to start careers at Uber, says she’s only had one client hit on her and she put him in his place. ‘This guy said, “Can you visit me at my hotel?” I said, “I can only do one job and I’m a driver. Find another person for that other job!” She doesn’t avoid unsafe areas, nor does Uber restrict where she can drive. ‘Not at all – that would say to a woman, be afraid, don’t come and drive for us because it’s not safe. But we drive everywhere.’
Like Gladness, Cindy Mashao doesn’t feel unsafe and laughs o concerns about her security. The 43-year-old hair salon owner from Alexandra in Johannesburg says that once you’ve lived in a township, nothing will scare you. ‘I go everywhere, I don’t feel it’s dangerous, I don’t feel insecure. The only time I felt something was when I was driving late at night from Fourways to the Cradle of Humankind. You only see the bush. That’s when I thought, what if I got a puncture here? What am I going to do being a woman on my own? But I can drive anywhere.’
I’m surprised when Cindy says she prefers to drive men rather than women because they’re more polite, tip better and are less demanding. ‘You know, women, we don’t treat each other nicely. But there are women that, whenever I meet them, say they don’t want to be driven by guys, they’re scared so ask if they can take my number.’
Phindile Ncube, 41, would like to see an ‘UberWomen’ function introduced that would pair female riders and drivers on request. The married mother of two used to work as a call centre consultant and stumbled upon Uber when looking for a secondary income. ‘I liked the convenience of Uber – it’s safe and cashless, you just go online when it’s convenient Uber drivers choose their own working schedule it gives you enough time for family and enough time to be at work.’ She believes a service tailored solely to women would also bene t parents who use Uber to transport their children to and from school, an increasing trend in South Africa. (Competitor company Sidecar has introduced this function in the US but it does come with potential drawbacks, like waiting longer for a female driver.)
What does Uber think about this suggestion? ‘ How do you check that it’s a female rider booking the trip?’ Alon asks. ‘We screen the drivers but when you sign up as a rider there’s no requirement to specify your gender and even if there was, you could lie about it. Our intention is to ensure that riders always feel safe, whether you have a male or female driver.’
Uber has plans to expand and innovate both globally and in South Africa. In May this year, the company rolled out UberHealth, an initiative in cooperation with Discovery Health, that saw u vaccines delivered to clients on demand. It’s also considering UberEats, a service that would deliver food, as well as delivery service UberRush. Not to mention the UberChopper helicopters that were available in Cape Town in December. And during the raging mountain res in Cape Town earlier this year, Uber endeared itself to locals with UberAssist, where drivers picked up and delivered supplies for weary re ghters at no charge.
The company is shaking things up – not only the taxi industry, but in whatever other sphere it nds opportunity to do so. As it continues to grow, it’s likely Uber will become even further verbi ed in our lexicon.
IN AN AMBITIOUS ANNOUNCEMENT EARLIER THIS YEAR, UBER SAID THAT IT IS WORKING TOWARDS CREATING A MILLION JOBS FOR WOMEN AROUND THE WORLD BY 2020
Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber; Alon Lits, GM Uber