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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - @MandyWiener


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


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.


Phindile Ncube

Glad­ness Mo­mo­bela

Cindy Mashao



Travis Kalan­ick, co-founder of Uber; Alon Lits, GM Uber


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