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.

  • The Pete

    Also had similar experiences in my use of Uber recently. Driver weaving all over the road as if he might have been drinking and strangely enough almost saw a driver take out a moped last week when the Uber driver swerved across the road without checking oncoming traffic to park and pick up passengers.
    Also spoken to some drivers who work incredibly long hours in order to pay the rental on their cars, by the end of their “shifts” they must be so exhausted that their driving skill must take a dip.

  • The Pete > Yes. The long hours thing is also a problem I have heard of anecdotally.
    But sleep-deprived or not, the standard of driving is definitely dropping. Any sleep-deprivation might make it even worse. And that’s not good.

  • Jeremy Setzer

    I have had several shocking experiences with Uber – drivers getting lost, driving around in circles a few blocks away making me cancel for R50, (I got a refund eventually but that’s a whole story by itself) and then recently nearly getting run over by one at a traffic light because he was too busy looking at his phone. His passengers actually ended up apologising on his behalf. It seems that the only safe Uber is Uber Black. Sure you pay a premium but you actually save by not needing to order a triple when you arrive, just to calm the nerves. I am sure it’s against the law to drive while using a phone in South Africa anyway?

  • Jeremy Setzer > The phone thing is obviously illegal, but it’s a key indicator of this problem for me. Using a phone as a GPS isn’t illegal and isn’t difficult if you’re a good driver. The issue comes when the driver isn’t confident in his ability, and more especially when that’s combined with a lack of knowledge of the area. 100% of his attention needs to be on the road, and when he’s looking and concentrating elsewhere, it gets dangerous. Didn’t help that last night’s outbound trip had no phone mount to put the phone on.

    Haven’t used Uber Black – considered it last night for the journey home, but then wondered why those drivers would be any better? Because they have more investment tied up in the vehicle, or because the vehicle owner would only trust a better driver with a more expensive ride?

  • Ami Kapilevich

    We were going to pick up some friends in an Uber en route to a restaurant but the driver was so bad – I mean this guy just couldn’t actually drive a car – we ‘popped in’ for a glass of wine instead. After the glass of wine we hailed an Uber, and there he was, same guy, skulking just around the corner. We were trapped!

  • Ami Kapilevich > So we popped back in for a brandy for Dutch Courage.
    But seriously, I would love the option to block a driver. I don’t care if I have to wait a little longer for my car. In the meantime, I obviously know the names of the three drivers from last night, and I will cancel my trip if I see that I’ve been landed with them again.