Some thoughts on Uber in Cape Town

Hello guys. Hello gals.

I have a problem with Uber in the Mother City.

Let me first set the scene. Some background, if you will.
I think Uber is a great idea. In a country where we still have yet to cross the hugely important barrier of drinking and driving becoming socially unacceptable, any alternative means of getting oneself home after a night out is not only welcome, it’s vitally important.

And Uber is easy to use. It’s there when you need it, you don’t need to have cash on you, you press a couple of buttons and you’re sorted for your journey. When it first arrived, it felt like the future. In some ways, it still does.

There have been problems. Implementing a business model which was devised for the heady, First World streets of San Francisco and New York into South Africa hasn’t always been straightforward. But I’ve spoken to a huge number of drivers who have had their lives changed for the better by working for Uber here in Cape Town. The flexibility around working hours, the opportunity of income that they wouldn’t otherwise have had and the ease of becoming a driver, with no specific skills or education required, are all things that most cite as benefits of working in this system. And of course, it’s hard work and everyone along the line needs to take their cut, but no driver has ever told me that he wished he didn’t work (or have to work) for Uber. The overriding sentiment is positive.

But I’ve noticed a concerning change in the standard of my Uber drivers recently. More and more often, I’m getting drivers that are simply not very good at driving, that are new to the area and that don’t inspire any confidence in getting you to the end of your journey safely. And that’s not good.

Take last night. Dinner out in Woodstock, with an early start. Uber booked, arrived on time, but then missed the turn into our driveway because he was looking at his phone instead of looking at us frantically waving at him, and then almost took out two other vehicles in trying to pull over to get to us.

Despite us helping with directions, the journey was uncomfortable. Too much time staring at the phone next to the handbrake, excessive acceleration followed by excessive braking – like a learner driver – and the moment where he thought that he’d taken a wrong turn and decided that trying to stop in the fast lane of Hospital Bend was a good thing to do while he sorted things out. I thought we were going to die.  He claimed that he’d never driven on Hospital Bend – weird for a driver in Cape Town, but ok – but given the fact that it’s quite clearly a five-lane-each-way highway with traffic travelling at 80kph, there’s really no excuse for even considering stopping there, especially with two passengers frantically telling you to please keep driving before the rest of the N2 ended up right up our arses.

I (briefly) found religion. And it clearly paid off, because we got to the restaurant physically unscarthed, but mentally scarred.

But this scenario is becoming more and more common. I’m seeing more and more inexperienced drivers – not just inexperienced in working for Uber, or in driving in Cape Town – but inexperienced in actually driving.

As if further proof was required, we didn’t even get into our second Uber last night, because he crashed into a moped on the 60 second journey to pick us up from the restaurant. According to witnesses, it wasn’t the fault of the moped. Just saying.

Our replacement driver was a local guy, who claimed to know the roads, but took us via some bizarre route home against the wishes of the GPS “because it avoided the traffic lights on the M3”. The fact that we live a couple of hundred metres off the M3, we ended up going through 6 sets of robots instead of 3 and we got stuck at a level crossing we should never have been anywhere near seemed to escape him. He was a nice guy, he was a confident driver, but he ripped us off by (deliberately) taking a illogical longer route.

I didn’t think we were going to crash at any moment though.
Which was nice.

So I was unimpressed with all three of our drivers last night. The longer route thing pisses me off (and I told him so), but it’s the continuing theme of limited driving ability which I find far more concerning. I’ve seen people saying that this is a purely Cape Town-based problem with Uber, but I can’t comment, having limited experience of using the service in other SA cities.

Has this been your experience too? And with seemingly so many more “learner” drivers around, how do you avoid getting one on your next Uber trip? I’d love to know.

Bad driver checklist

Cape Town drivers are, apparently, terrible. And apparently Cape Town drivers aren’t just terrible, they’re more terrible than drivers in other parts of South Africa. I might well be persuaded to go along with this sweeping generalisation, but then I don’t do a huge amount of driving elsewhere in South Africa, so I don’t really have a lot to compare them with.

As with all things that are good and/or bad, there are degrees of goodity or baditude. The best way to find out whether someone is a terrible driver is probably just to observe them driving terribly, but if you don’t have time for that – or if you prefer to be forewarned – then I have noted that there are a few telltale signs that should alert you that a Cape Town driver is going to be particularly terrible.

Here is a list of those signs. It’s not in any particular order. The risk is cumulative, so the more of these boxes that any driver ticks, the greater the danger to those around them.

1. The vehicle has a CF number plate. It used to be that you had to be wary of CY number plates (and with good reason), but Kuils River is the new Bellville. In number plate terms, at least. I suppose the dodgy strip joints will soon follow.
As I’ve mentioned before, bad driving is evidently spreading slowly eastwards. Plettenberg Bay is going to be a disaster in about 2052. You’ve been warned.

2. The SSSS concern. As in, the vehicle is sporting a Southern Suburbs School Sticker. Specifically from a boys school. Like “Proud Rondebosch Family”, “Brothers In An Endless Chain” (that’s Wynberg Boys’ current sickeningly simpering ideology) or “SACS Pride”.
These stickers are worn with honour, but honour does not come for free. It comes at the hefty price of a 50% decrease in your (possibly already meagre) driving ability.

3. Hondas. (Had One Never Did Again; History Of No Dramatic Acceleration).
Yes, BMW and Audi drivers drive arrogantly, dangerously and stupidly fast, but that’s to be expected, because their drivers are cocks. Honda drivers (especially those driving the Jazz), drive obliviously, and that’s actually far more terrifying. It’s almost as if they don’t recognise that there’s likely to be any other road users out there.
Take your horrid little Brio out to the middle of the Karoo and you might be right. Drive it down Sea Point Main Road on a Saturday morning and – I assure you – you’ll be wrong (to the detriment of all around you).

4. GPS in the middle of the windscreen. Do people in other cities really do this too? Yes, you need to know where you’re going (although we have the Mountain for that), and yes, you need us all to see that you have a GPS, but putting it directly in your field of view when you are (allegedly) in control of 1000+kgs of motor vehicle isn’t the best idea you’ve ever had. It’s like driving with one eye closed (I’d presume, anyway), and that makes the road infinitely more dangerous for those unfortunate enough to be around you.

5. Any 4 wheel drive Toyota. Do you drive a Run-X or a Yaris? If so, you pose no additional risk to anyone else on the road. Are you in a Land Cruiser? Yes? Well, you’re a massive liability.
Sorry to do this, but the major culprits in (already dangerous) Land Cruisers have two add-on risk factors: i) 30- and 40-something year old mothers, and ii) those pisspoor stick figure family things on the back windscreen.
Don’t misunderstand me here: 30- and 40-something year old mothers in any other vehicle are fine, and stick figure family things on the back windscreen are… well… they’re utterly dismal. But alone (or even as a pair) these factors don’t come along with any additional deterioration in driving prowess. Stick either of them – or, heavens preserve us, both – onto or into a big Chelsea Tractor though, and you increase the danger to those around you to frankly near incomprehensible levels.

6. Golden Arrow Buses. In Durban, bus drivers have used their vehicles to block intersections as a form of protest. In Cape Town, they do it because there’s a vowel in the day. The only thing scarier than an errant driver racing through Observatory in a Honda Jazz is an errant driver racing through Observatory in a 15-tonne Golden Arrow Bus.
It used to be that taxi drivers were the public transport scourge of the roads. No longer. It’s not because the taxi drivers have got any better. They’re simply been overtaken (often literally and illegally) by a filthy, 12 metre long, 1980s accident waiting to happen.

7. Cyclists. Obviously not drivers per se, but disproportionately dangerous on the roads. We’ve been through the issues surrounding cyclists more than once, but it seems to make sense to warn you to steer well clear of them and their entirely predictable unpredictability. The only thing you can guarantee about them is that they’ll happily race through red traffic lights and then blame cars for everything. This is a great example of tarring everyone with the same brush: in actual fact, cyclists should just blame Hondas for everything.

8. Cars with a dreamcatcher hanging from the rear view mirror. Technically, individuals who have a dreamcatcher hanging from their rear view mirror don’t know actually what a rear view mirror is. They think it’s a dreamcatcher hanger. They have no idea that it has any other purpose. That’s one reason that they’re more risky to be around on the road. The second reason that individuals who possess dreamcatchers are dangerous is that they are usually hippies who are concentrating more on stuff like world peace and veganism rather than actually driving safely. For some reason, these people feel that they are allowed to appropriate First Nation culture with absolutely no penalty. Aside from the crippling inability to drive.

Did I miss anything?
Stay safe out there.
And please share for awareness.

Hello Winter, my old friend

Winter has suddenly and viciously arrived in Cape Town. Just [does the maths] 72 hours after that sublime day out in Franschhoek, with its cloudless skies and 27 degrees, there are suddenly many inches of rain and a plethora of Beauforts. The pressure has dropped below 1000mb for the first time this year and the temperature is only just troubling the mid-teens.

Of course, this is actually no great surprise. Winter comes in May and this is May. It happened last year around this time and again the year before. Personally, I can see a pattern emerging, but that’s probably just down to my intensely-trained scientific mind, so don’t worry if you haven’t spotted it yet.
However, the moaning has started already. This is also no great surprise. Despite the fact that there are plenty of great things to do in this weather (hide under blankets, drink buckets of red wine, watch World Cup football), there are two activities that Capetonians are unable to do in the cold and rain: go to the beach and drive.

The beach thing is fairly obvious. One goes to the beach to enjoy the sun, the warm sea air and the chicks in their bikinis.
One does not go to the beach to get hypothermia. Not even the Brits do that. So, no. No beach in this weather, thank you very much.
The driving thing is more mysterious. It has been well documented that the phenomenon occurs, but no-one is really sure why. And there’s no one way in which Capetonian drivers get worse when it rains. It seems to be that they just do everything rather badly: no indicating, late braking, nipping through red lights, crossing solid white lines, complaining about how other people can’t drive etc.
It’s like everyone suddenly thinks they’re driving a BMW.

This appalling roadsmanship obviously has a profound effect on the traffic flow around the city. When it rains, my journey to work will take twice as long as usual or even increase by as much as 100%, time-wise. And I really don’t think I can be the only one who experiences this. I’ve done some rudimentary calculations and worked out that when it rains, businesses in and around Cape Town lose out by a really big number of Rands because their staff, supplies and deliveries are all caught up in the traffic.

It’s at this point in many blog posts that one might expect to find a few suggested solutions to this problem and who am I to disappoint. Having been daubed with the paintbrush of positivity after seeing what has been managed by local engineers in the form of the all new Hospital Bend and the magnificence that is the Cape Town World Cup Stadium, I now believe they can do anything.
Which is why they can build the huge sponge on the top of Table Mountain.
If I was better with Photoshop (OK, if I even had Photoshop), I’m sure I could show you just how that would look. As it is, you’ll just have to imagine Table Mountain with a sponge on top of it. A huge one. Probably in yellow.

Hopefully, this would absorb any rain that was due to fall on any of Cape Town’s roads and would thus prevent the entire city driving like tossers on wet days. The obviously massive costs of this huge project would be offset by the enormous financial benefits to the city of people actually being able to get to their offices and start work before ten o’clock.

Add a really big heat lamp and we could solve the beach thing too.