30 June Uber

There’s plenty wrong with Uber: it is unresponsive to complaints, its drivers are unhappy, its founding CEO (who has only now stepped down under considerable shareholder pressure) appears to have unsavoury habits, its corporate culture has attracted unfavourable attention – that’s a long enough list before you add the complaints levied by competitors in the licensed taxi industry. However, from a South African urban perspective all this pales into insignificance in the presence of a single overwhelming benefit: now that we have access to Uber, it is so easy to enjoy a night out on the town and to get home without risking lives on the roads that no one with an elevated blood alcohol level and a smartphone has any excuse for being behind the wheel of a car.

Not so long ago returning from a dinner or function after consuming real volumes of alcohol required forward planning or strategic thinking. Of course it was possible to make arrangements – either ahead of the time, by using the various driving services which did exist (but which never seemed to have staff available at the festive times of the year) or by relying on whoever drew the “designated driver” short straw. Pregnant women have never been told more often how beautiful they looked, while teetotal colleagues quickly worked out the connection between their apparent popularity and the office Christmas party.

Mostly – especially at quieter times of the year and after mid-week restaurant dinners – people simply “took their chances.” In effect this meant devising routes home which made use of side streets and by-ways where a police presence was considered unlikely. There can’t be many amongst us who haven’t left a dinner hoping if they were to be stopped, their consumption would scrape in under the limit – without any real sense of exactly how much they could drink before they were in the danger zone. I have a portable breathalyser in my car – essential given my profession –  mainly to ensure that even if I have been spitting out everything at a tasting I haven’t absorbed more alcohol than the law allows. In fact, Uber or no Uber, knowing your blood alcohol level when you take to the road is as essential as being aware of your HIV status before cruising a single bar (or signing up on Tinder). I’ve seen a Sunday mid-morning roadblock in Sydney  because the cops know only too well that several hours after a binge, you might still be over the limit, even though you think you’re legal and alert.

So we who have made Uber an essential part of our drink-and-drive-safely code of conduct should not be passive about its policies or its prospects. It’s under pressure because the cops stand by while so-called licensed taxis harass drivers. If Uber is legal, then the cabbies (who until Uber’s arrival milked the market with impunity) will have to up their game, rather than relying on bullying and the complicity of a corrupt police force to stay in business. If it’s not legal, then the cops should do their job, and not delegate it to Uber’s competitors.

By the same token, Uber is going to have to go from client acquisition mode to sustainable business mode if it’s to live up to its promise. Its drivers are earning too little to stay in the game long-term if they are to cover their real overheads (commission paid to Uber, petrol, vehicle wear-and-tear and finance charges) and earn enough income for their needs. Many only make do by working dangerously long hours. The simple solution would be an increase of at least 20% in the basic tariff – something which Uber can easily implement. There’s an easy way of calculating the value to the Uber-contractor of that increment, versus the extra 20% on the cost of our ride. For him it’s a matter of life and death. For us, it’s one less bottle of wine a week.

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