Uber is no hero

2015-07-12 16:25

I have been using Uber since it launched in South Africa in 2013. I was still living in Cape Town. I also used it in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. It’s the reason I live in Johannesburg without a car – and it’s cheaper to use Uber X every day. But I am not going to sign their petition, which probably doesn’t need my signature anyway because at last count there were more than 20 000 signatures in favour of keeping Uber on Cape Town’s roads.

Jozi has allowed Uber to function on chartered-services licences, as opposed to metered-taxi licences, unlike Cape Town, which hasn’t adapted.

Cape Town’s regulators in the department of transport and public works are not the only ones saddled with onerous red tape. Many a city’s arduous top-down nature has been crudely exposed by the arrival of Uber on their streets. The balance between sufficient regulation for public safety and order, and creating a conducive environment for innovation and new players, is still wonky. But Uber is also not really about the rules.

It’s deliberately disruptive. That is great for getting a service out, but it makes recourse tricky.

It was the reason for the uproar in Delhi, India, where the alleged rape of a young woman by an Uber driver led to the service being banned.

Uber has built a brilliant business that places almost all the risk and liability on its driver partners. This makes Uber dangerous. One could spend years trying to chase accountability because, ultimately, it is a customer-interface business.

Uber simply cannot operate without rules – but the current ones don’t work. Uber must be willing to play by some of the rules. Its current business model, at least locally, means drivers bear the brunt of this untenable situation.

And it’s not just cities that have been caught napping. Metered taxis around the world, now feeling the pinch of real competition, were also caught napping. The metered taxis’ shortcomings, which are not new, are also being shown up.

A turf war has ensued, where established taxi drivers are fighting Uber drivers – and physically, if you are in Sandton. Not the owners of Uber, but the drivers.

The real effect is being felt by driver partners, who have had their cars – many financed with loans which they must work to pay off – impounded.

These drivers are now working under the imminent threat of violence and it is a reminder of who really suffers under capitalism. If it’s not drivers, it’s customers.

Frat-boy Silicon Valley capitalism accountable only to private capital – as great as the service may be – is no hero.

Cities must adapt, metered taxis must accept competition, Uber must accept responsibility

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March 18 2018