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May 15, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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Better the Uber you know than the Uber you don’t

Just a few years ago a standard Friday or Saturday night on the town would have ended one of two different ways: stumbling home drunk, precariously avoiding dodgy alleyways, and attempting to make the late-night cheeseburger last until the inevitable hazy descent into a drunken stupor; or by paying a cab from one of the many local taxi companies to drive back to some shoddy student accommodation, with a lingering, regretful reminder that this cab fare is most likely unaffordable. But in 2009 a Silicon Valley startup threw another option into the mix and changed how the world viewed, defined, and regulated private transportation forever.

Uber, founded by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, spread from San Francisco to all corners of the globe, with the most recent location being Abuja, Nigeria. Its services have been introduced in 65 countries and 407 cities worldwide, but not without begging the question of what privatized transport’s future looks like to a global audience and the governments that rule them.

Heralded as a magical solution to impersonal and expensive taxi rides, Uber has come with its own issues. One of the more prominent is the possibility of sexual harassment on the part of the Uber driver, with 175 reports being filed between December 2012 and August 2015. Five of them were rapes. This is an issue taxi drivers are not exempt from, but due to the unregulated and unresponsive nature of Uber’s company’s operation it seems it’s a much harder issue for them to address and control.

Recently the story of a 15 year old girl came to prominence in New Zealand media outlets, regarding her encounter with an inappropriate Uber driver. After reaching her destination the driver asked for her number and suggested that they hang out because he was finishing work soon. It escalated to the point where the driver refused to let her leave his vehicle if she did not give him her number. When the girl’s friend posted this on Facebook, four women replied saying they had also dealt with the same Uber driver and experienced his advances. Bex Fitzgerald was one of them and although her ride began on the standard terms, when they arrived at the destination, he wouldn’t let her get out of the car. He asked for her number and refused to let go of her hand after shaking it, and ignored her completely when she said she had a boyfriend in attempt to defend herself from his advances. Fitzgerald filed a formal complaint with Uber about the incident, and had no response until the aforementioned 15 year old’s story was publicized—suggesting that Uber reacts quickly once they have bad publicity.

Ashleigh Schulze had a similar experience. During one car trip she had an Uber driver ask invasive questions about her sex life. When she reported the incident Uber responded saying they had received her complaint, however that was the last she heard of the matter and the driver in question is still affiliated with Uber and actively operating in Wellington. Schulze finds it disappointing that there was no follow-up on her filed complaint, saying that this lack of response is part of “more and more flaws to the system.”

While the apparent heightened risk of sexual harassment could be considered the worst aspect of Uber, other issues have been brought to the fore by users. Their surcharged pricing is a concern for many. Surcharges are set automatically by an algorithm that measures high demand and low supply of cars, and adds a surcharge, often doubling or tripling the standard fare. The surcharge is displayed on the app for the passenger to agree to. Uber uses surcharges to keep their drivers at the ready, and says that without surcharges there would be fewer drivers. Ashleigh Schulze, occasional Uber user, said she used Uber during Sevens weekend to get from the Basin Reserve to Courtenay Place and because of the surcharge paid over $70 for a distance of less than a kilometre. Uber attracted media attention in Australia following extreme surcharge increases in the wake of a civil emergency. The Sydney hostage situation at the end of 2014 saw Uber charging four times the usual rate. As people took to social media to let loose about the moral ambiguity of profiting off an emergency, Uber remained steadfast in its stance that the price increase simply serves to incentivise drivers to collect passengers.

That being said, there is a humorous light to some of the Uber technicalities. Claudia Jardine once had an Uber driver who seemed hell bent on converting her to Christianity. The driver spent the whole ride detailing the greatness of her church, going so far as to suggest that joining the church could help to “find her a nice young man.” While the ride itself was not uncomfortable, it could have been problematic for another person who was not used to explaining their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, to complete strangers. “She was really persistent. I thought she just took the job to push her agenda and use it as a way of recruiting.” In the end, Claudia rated her two stars, and said she couldn’t be bothered reporting her behaviour.

While these problems have arisen within the unregulated platform of Uber, a more standardized, supervised system doesn’t necessarily avoid them. Wellington taxi companies are regulated under rules outlined by the New Zealand Transport Agency, but numerous companies have come under fire for the behaviour of their drivers and management.

A Wellington man, Joe Nieddu, was recently told by a Capital Taxi driver that he “needed God’s help” because she overheard him talking on the phone to his male partner. She lectured him on gay being “wrong” and how God could help; and when he reported the incident to the company’s management, Nieddu was told that “the comments were not discriminatory” and the driver would not be penalized. Capital Taxis told Nieddu that if he had a problem he had to take action himself, making everyone wonder what Capital Taxis deemed as “taking action” if it was not reporting it.  

Amber O’Sullivan, an English literature student at Victoria, when asked about her experiences regarding Uber said the majority of her experiences as a user were positive. She then indicated that she had more problems with Wellington taxi companies. She recalled a Wellington Combined driver harassing her. The driver commented on her looks and asked whether she had a boyfriend, making her feel uncomfortable, and treading into inappropriate territory for someone meant to get you from point A to point B.

Lydia Shepherd’s remarks are similar. She’s experienced several inappropriate taxi drivers and chooses Uber because its location sharing feature means you can publicly share your location status on social media. Although it’s no dashboard video camera (something required in all taxis), it’s a way to use Uber and have a form of protection—a feeling of safety. Shepherd adds that she wishes there were more women drivers. If the feature to request a certain driver was available, she would always pick a woman.   

Becoming an Uber driver is relatively easy. The aspiring driver just needs to sign up online, indicating to Uber that they’re interested and want to be part of the Uber community. Then they need to prove they have the necessary vehicle and license requirements (regulations vary depending on the city and country the person is applying in). It helps to own particular models such as a Toyota Prius, Honda Accord, or Nissan Maxima, but other vehicles also accepted as long as they comply with the Uber aesthetic of “discount chic.” The potential Uber driver then uploads their bank details to the website, downloads the Uber partner app, and they are officially ready for service.

Uber has shown that background checks of the drivers is not a heavy concern in their process. In the US it’s been documented that 25 people with major criminal convictions were approved to work for the company.

Because Uber has not been well received in many countries, bans have been created to address the problems the service. These differ depending on the location and what local governments deem best for their people. Three common bans include: a total ban, a partial ban, and indefinite suspension of operations. Uber is popular in spite of what select governments deem best, and governments don’t always get what they want. In some countries where Uber is banned, it operates anyway. Bans in their varying forms are widespread, and exist in the US, India, Australia, Spain, South Korea, Belgium, and South Africa.

In India numerous sexual assault allegations have been placed against Uber drivers; this issue the primary problem in India with Uber. In October 2015 a particularly brutal case came to light: driver Shiv Kumar Yadav was found guilty of rape and life endangerment after picking up a woman in Gurgaon, India. He drove her to an isolated area and raped her, threatening to stick a rod into her if she did not comply. He is now waiting to be sentenced and faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. Responding to this incident Uber India has added an “SOS” option for their users, meant to be activated if anything goes wrong during an Uber ride. New Delhi’s Transport Department has banned Uber regardless of the—obviously small—changes made to the app, but because Uber operates over the internet it’s hard for the government to fully control it. This is a circumstance of “banned, but operating anyway.”

In South Africa, police reported impounding 34 vehicles that were operating illegally by Uber. South Africa is a country that regulates Uber like it regulates taxis, and because these vehicles weren’t holding proper licenses for metered taxis they were collected. Besides this instance Uber has been well-received in South Africa, amongst problems with taxis throughout the country. Since the late 1980s South Africa has dealt with “taxi wars,” turf wars between different taxi associations based upon faulty taxi regulation laws passed in the 1930s. The problem has escalated so much that it is now comparable to the Italian Mafia, requesting hits on certain drivers and participating in gang warfare. The introduction of Uber, a company not built into this long-standing criminal taxi infrastructure, has given people a more secure transport option without being involved with turf warfare. With that being said, a partial ban exists in South Africa for Uber vehicles and drivers that don’t comply to standard taxi regulations.

The government officials of South Korea don’t like the ambiguity of Uber. It’s not a service that is readily explainable or easily definable, so the government quickly labelled it an “illegal taxi service” and began to cleanse the streets of Uber activity. Their anger towards Uber was better understood when it was released that the South Korean government was planning on making their own GPS enabled taxi-like app when Uber launched in South Korea, causing conflict and competition in a niche market. Seoul officials have created a payment incentive for citizens to turn in operating Uber drivers, and Uber responded with a deal giving free rides on up to 30 trips totalling to under $27 to all Seoul residents. As of May 2016, the government-sponsored taxi service does much better than Uber and the ride-sharing company is struggling to hold onto its illegal Seoul market. It remains under a full ban and it is not expected to be overturned any time soon.

Uber is currently involved with 173 legal cases in the US alone, and a court case against at least one country on each of the inhabited continents. Governments have difficulties tackling Uber because their business is conducted primarily over the internet. Customer safety and security is paramount to the people behind most legal action. In San Francisco and Los Angeles state prosecutors brought legal proceedings against Uber because of the company’s safety claims. The state of California had issue with the words used by Uber to inform customers of their safety procedures, saying that the phrasing was misleading. In its advertising Uber had insisted that they had better background check procedures in place than traditional taxi companies, however after it was investigated, it became clear that the regulation imposed by Uber on their drivers was more lenient than the state of California. Uber agreed to pay out $10 million in fines, publically acknowledging that this case was similar to a case brought against them in early 2016 by actual customers—in that circumstance, they had to pay out $28 million in fines. The result of this was a rephrasing in their advertisements. However no change to Uber’s policy and safety regulations have taken place.

Uber has been repeatedly sued by their own drivers as well. Drivers in the US are now suing the ride-sharing app for expenses incurred while driving for the company, including fees for vehicle maintenance and gas. Originally the lawsuit was based around lack of holiday pay, but it evolved as ever more drivers backed the legal case. This case is now setting the standard for how Uber is to be regulated, whether as a technology start-up or a taxi firm. It has yet to be settled, but the importance of the case is already solidified. If Uber loses their drivers will officially be marked as “employees” and not “free-lancers,” giving more power and authority to the driver.

Uber had a promising start when it came to potential partnerships. At the beginning, Uber was seen as a modern beacon of hope to organizations like UN Women, the United Nation’s initiative for gender equality and empowerment of women, but its novel and seemingly-progressive façade faded away quite quickly.

UN Women’s budding partnership with Uber was well meaning. The goal was to create one million jobs for women by 2020, thus exposing women who otherwise wouldn’t have things like health insurance and other benefits to a stable job opportunity. But Uber couldn’t uphold its end of the deal, unable to promise the most basic of needs like minimum wage. UN Women decided that fostering a partnership with Uber would only exacerbate the already precarious job situation for women across the world. Uber jobs, UN Women stated, would “not contribute to women’s economic empowerment and represents exactly the type of structural inequality within the labor market that the women’s movement has been fighting for decades.”

In its seven years, Uber has developed an intricate history. It emerged as a modern and hopeful take on the traditional taxi service, but with that came unanticipated consequences. Uber highlights the deficit that governing bodies have when it comes to modern innovations like online start-ups; as more technological advancements come, societies aren’t quite sure how to handle them. And with the promise it brings, it also brings a variety of problems that can be found both here in Wellington and internationally. That’s not to say that you should skip Uber entirely. I myself use it quite often, putting a weird emphasis on my personal rating and tracking whether or not they offer me mints. All things considered, Uber could be summed up as my “problematic fave” when it comes to transport options.


Facts re. the types of Uber:

UberX: marketed as “the low-cost option” but still impacted regularly by intense surcharge fares.

UberPOOL: Uber for those who want to save the planet and do it in someone else’s Toyota Prius with like minded people.

UberBOAT: Not actually a car service, just boat options for the rich and famous in select cities.

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