If there is one thing that has changed my daily life in the last few years, that’s made my life safer, easier and quicker, it’s Uber. Despite the strong competition from the likes of Apple and Samsung (I have a tablet by one and a phone by the other) it is actually an app rather than a device that has made me feel safer than anything else. But Uber is under attack from all and sundry. And that's because it deserves it. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
I’ve always seen taxi drivers as people who hustle. Who push you, who sell their wares aggressively, who cannot be trusted. It’s a feeling I’ve felt from the entrance to Ealing Broadway on the London Underground, at Washington DC’s Union Station and at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. I still feel it at OR Tambo. Groups of men, milling around, almost always wearing black leather jackets, all trying to almost push you into their car. And always I feel like I’m going to be fleeced, I’m going to feel unsafe for a period of time, and will be lucky to actually arrive where I want to go.
There’s something about the masculinity of the taxi driver that comes into play, the aggression one feels from such people. Perhaps it’s because they spend too much time together, as a group of men, with no female company. Perhaps it’s a sense of competition. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a taxi with a female driver.
And almost without exception, whichever city I’ve been in, the dispatcher has lied about how long the taxi will take to get to me. Five minutes was half an hour, 20 minutes an hour (I must point out an honourable exception; Rose Taxis once got to a family member stranded in a dangerous place at midnight incredibly quickly, and quite literally saved the day).
Uber gets around all of that. And you can actually see where the car is on that fancy map thingie. It’s wonderful.
And their drivers are different. There is no hustle, no worry about being fleeced. And because it has such a big reputation, it has something to lose if things go wrong. Which means you’re pretty sure the person who is driving you is not a criminal, and has no evil intent. In my experience, almost all of the Uber drivers I’ve had are quiet, well-dressed men, often with families and children, and always willing to discuss them. I sometimes get the sense they’re actually driving for their children, for a better life for them, that their driving 16 hours a day is a passport into the middle-classes for their offspring. And they mostly own their own cars, which means they drive them carefully.
This means that when I hear of people being bodily pulled out of Uber cars by metered taxi drivers, my blood starts to boil. Who would attack someone as mild-mannered as an Uber driver? What kind of thug threatens someone for simply getting into a car? And what economic bully proclaims that they have a right to the business of people getting out at the Gautrain station in Sandton? Surely these people are simply one step above Public Hooligan Number One, the minibus taxi drivers at Mamelodi?
Government of course says that it must regulate Uber. The free-marketeer within me wants to stop them and ask, “Why?”. Shouldn’t the market sort it out? If Uber is a better service, bye bye, metered taxis, bye bye. But, respond those government types, we need to regulate to prevent conflict. Which is surely an admission that government simply cannot police everywhere all the time. That it has given up trying to control what happens on our streets (but you knew that already, because you’ve been behind and in front of a minibus taxi before). Because if a metered taxi driver attacks an Uber driver, then it’s not a dispute about economics or regulation, it’s about the crime of assault. And the person who does that should simply go to jail.
Can you imagine a cellphone network physically attacking you for using WhatsApp instead of their SMS service? Or even shutting down access to WhatsApp? Governments would be rushing to enforce license conditions in Pretoria, Kharthoum and Sydney. But in this case, government talks of “regulation” and “co-existence”. I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation on SMS with someone who wasn’t an automated government press conference announcement service.
What’s so interesting about taxi drivers everywhere is that those at the Sandton Gautrain Station are no different to those in Paris, where Uber customers all sat in the front with the drivers during a recent violent strike by metered taxi drivers.
Surely this is proof that what’s happening is that Uber is winning. There can be no other way to see this. It works, it’s quick, at some point there will be competition, and it’s the future. And what it is really doing is showing how employment for able-bodied men who can use only their bodies and not their brains is evaporating. These men whose only skill is the ability to control a car, are using those bodies to engage in physical violence.
And it’s a big but. Uber itself is a hustler.
You may not think so immediately, the public face of Uber, the people we actually deal with face to face, the drivers, are not hustlers, they’re people whose criminal record has been checked. But download the Uber app on your phone, and note the ‘permissions’ that you have to give.
It asks for access to your identity, your contacts, your location, access to your SMSes, your phone (i.e. the calling system on your device), photos/media files, your camera, Wi-Fi connection information, device ID and call information.
Some of this makes sense, obviously Uber needs to know where you are, asking for permission to access your location services is perfectly reasonable. But what on earth would you need access to my contacts for? So that you can finally get that hard to get private number for Gwede Mantashe? Someone’s already beaten you to that.
And my photographs. Really? I am not Jennifer Lawrence. But if I were, I would simply never use the service, the risk of something ‘going wrong’ would be too great. And what about those pictures of my children? I don’t let them go online in any way, it’s important for me to have complete control over where they go, as far as I am able. So why do you need access to that?
And why do you need to know my call history, what could you possible want to do with the fact I called my wife three times in one minute, while waiting for your car to arrive?
Then there is the behaviour of the people who actually run Uber. A couple of weeks ago I had to force an answer out of their South African CEO about whether or not their cabs are regulated. Of course they are not, answer the question, don’t dodge it, it makes you look dodgy. But the public face of their head honchos in the US is even worse.
Its CEO Travis Kalanick claimed that because so many women now wanted to sleep with him because of the success of the company, “we call that Boob-er”. Funny in a frat house maybe (and that’s a big maybe). But to a reporter. That’s just stupid. And if your testosterone overpowers you to that extent, I’m not so sure I want my wife or daughter to use your services actually.
Then there are the moments when Uber has shown the movements of important people in Silicon Valley on a massive screen at a public event. That’s not just showing off, it’s actually a time for Stalker Alert!
I have no doubt that Uber is the way forward. It’s how the taxi industry is going to go. But it cannot yet claim it’s better than other taxi drivers. Because it’s still a hustler. DM
Photo: Dutch taxi drivers demonstrate against app-based transportation network and taxi company Uber’s UberPop service in The Hague, The Netherlands, 18 February 2015. EPA/Bart Maat
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