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.

Uber cash experiment begins

Uber are using SA as a Guinea pig. Quite why they don’t use Guinea as a Guinea pig is slightly beyond me, but still, SA it is. The experiment in question is whether cash payments for your Uber ride is a good/viable alternative to the “traditional” credit card.

South Africa becomes the first country in Uber’s global network to experiment with cash payments across five cities simultaneously and was selected because of its low credit and cheque card penetration.

Indeed. Apparently, cash makes up 65% of all transactions in SA, and while Uber says:

Uber riders in South Africa already have access to a reliable, convenient transportation; paying by cash just means more South Africans can enjoy this.

What they obviously also mean is that more people can use Uber and therefore increase their profit margins. But there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s how business works. In fact, it’s quite nice that for once the customer gets something out of it as well.

So, with the rest of the world moving away from cash as a payment form, I was interested to learn that Uber thought that this was a big enough deal to try this experiment. While the 65% figure above suggests that it makes sense, how many of the individuals who are making those cash transactions actually have a smartphone (which is still required for an Uber account/booking)? Smartphone penetration is “over 45%” in SA, and I would have thought that debit/credit card ownership (there are over 50 million cards currently in circulation in SA) would have covered most of that 45% already. Also, I’d reckon that the majority of people who don’t have a card wouldn’t live in urban areas anyway.
Urban areas are where Uber operates. Urban areas and Port Elizabeth.
In short, I’m surprised that Uber feel that a lack of a cash payment option was the rate limiting factor here.

Not everyone will have the cash option just yet. It’s being rolled out, and once you get it (I have, although I’ll probably never ever use it) you’ll see this screen upon opening your Uber app.

wp-1464258889036.jpg
And yes, of course, you can still choose a cashless option, so, much like your hot cross buns being Halal, this shouldn’t really negatively affect you at all. *ahem*

As for safety, with Uber drivers carrying cash now, will they become more of a target for thieves, skollies and skelm? Hopefully not, say Uber:

While it is unlikely that driver-partners will be carrying a large amount of cash, they will be able to deposit cash, at any time, into various FNB ATM’s across South Africa. We have also encouraged them to do regular deposits and keep as little cash on them as possible (by using their cash to pay for fuel and supplies).

Which is sensible. And it should be remembered that “regular” taxis carry money around all the time and we’re not hearing reports of them being mugged 24/7.

Well, no more than anyone else, anyway.

SA in The Guardian

Some reading for you.

Three stories about South Africa have recently made it into The Guardian and then from there, into my sphere of knowledge. None of it is particularly good news, as we are wont to expect from the British press, but equally, none of them are the non-stories we saw before the World Cup, (c.f.  this and this) which we didn’t bribe anyone $10,000,000 to stage.

First up, the “Cape Town’s Death Industry” story, detailing how much of the black population living here in the Mother City doesn’t want to be here once it has died (the population, not the city), and the lucrative business in arranging funerals back in the Eastern Cape for those living – or rather, previously living – here in Cape Town.

“These days, of course, it’s not just miners who live far from home. Families are spread out across the country, but amid this spatial dispersion, the fear of dying far from their point of origin has remained. It is now the reason for a growing industry that transports the dead across South Africa.”

As some of you may know, I was in the Eastern Cape recently, and I can understand why many people are desperate to return there once they have died. Ironically, my coming from Cape Town, I almost died a several times on the local roads, and had that have been the case, I would have wanted whatever was left brought back this way.
Anyway, jokes aside, the piece is a simplistic, but interesting view on the cultural complexity of the death industry (or, as many of us would call it “the funeral business”) in Cape Town.

Then, the dust and radioactive nastiness of Joburg’s mine dumps – a tale of tailings, if you will. Oliver Balch details the health problems associated with the leftovers of Gauteng’s gold rush, the people monitoring it:

A handful of randomised spot-checks reveal the extent of the pollution problem. For example, in a narrow run-off canal immediately opposite Soccer City, site of the 2010 Fifa World Cup final, van Wyk picks out the colours along the bank: red for iron, white for sulphur, green for copper, yellow for uranium, and so on.

And the complete lack of government action on actually doing anything about the situation:

Five years ago, the government identified 36 “priority areas” affected by radioactive acid mine drainage for remediation. Today, not a single one of these sites has a feasible implementation strategy in place.

And then, in a somewhat tenuous link to government stagnation, the Uber issue. The Uber issue is playing itself out all over the world with protests in London, really nasty protests in France and then this, in Joburg:

Internet taxi firm Uber said on Monday it was providing security for its drivers in South Africa after verbal threats from other taxi operators in the latest outbreak of friction to hit the fast-growing company. A couple in the city told the Eyewitness News website that they had seen metered taxi drivers harass an Uber driver, grab his keys and threaten him with a gun.

Yeah, taxi drivers are definitely top three when it comes to SA groups you don’t want to irritate. Also somewhere around the top end of that demographic is Helen Zille. And she has hit back at these claims by Uber:

Despite over a year of progressive discussions with regulators, there is still no clear route to obtaining vehicle operating permits for Uber driver partners. A process that should take no longer than a few weeks has been dragging on for over 6 months and still no operating permits have been issued to Uber driver partners. Yet, it appears that operating licenses have been issued to large metered taxi fleet operators, favouring these incumbent operators.

…in her recent newsletter, which admits that there have been delays – because government isn’t “nimble” – but takes the time to explain why those delays have happened – simply that the rules don’t exist for operators like Uber:

This situation creates a crisis for government. Officials must act within the law. But the law doesn’t envisage or cater for e-hailing services. The result is government paralysis.

Now, the angry, Facebook-wielding, online petition-signing, middle-class mob is a bit mixed up. The last time they got this worked up over something, it was probably about Nkandla and the widespread outrage was probably organised by Helen’s DA. Now they have to choose – beloved Uber or beloved Helen.

No wonder there is sudden silence.

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