Johannesburg - In two ticks – well, clicks – you could summon a taxi to take you from wherever you are to wherever you want to go, and pay the fee without using cash.
Well, that’s the idea of the revolutionary new “taxi” service Uber, but is it really so easy, cost-effective and safe?
For the uninitiated, Uber is a smartphone app. But the company’s business is transporting you taxi-style, acting as a middleman between drivers and riders and charging a commission.
Uber drivers, many of whom have crossed over from shuttle service companies, must have their own vehicles fitted with a GPS monitor, and they have to cover their own licence fees and risk insurance. Uber provides the drivers with an iPhone, and pays them weekly for their trips, minus 20 percent.
So how does it work? You can use Uber on any platform, be it iPhone, Android, web or SMS. You enter your credit card information when you open the app, so no money is ever handled.
Uber picks up your location using your phone’s GPS, so the driver knows where to pick you up.
In most cities, there are two different types of rides. The top-end service is called UberBLACK (Mercedes-Benz C-Class or Audi A4), and the low-cost option is UberX (Toyota Corolla, Nissan Almera or Chevrolet Cruze).
Currently Joburg and Durban have only UberBLACK but recently Cape Town became the first city in Africa to launch UberX.
The base fare for the UberBLACK service is R15 then R11 per km plus R1.10 a minute, with a minimum fare of R50.
The base fare for UberX is R5 then R7 per km plus R0.70 a minute, with a minimum fare of R20.
These are competitive prices when compared to, say, a Joburg metered taxi service which charges R12 per kilometre.
A UberBLACK trip from Joburg to OR Tambo airport is about R350, travelling in style, while some companies are charging up to R500.
Alon Lits, Uber Joburg’s general manager, says there’s no plan yet to introduce the cheaper UberX in Joburg or Durban, “but we are always looking at ways we can provide more choice to riders and more economic opportunity to drivers in every city we are in”.
Once you choose your type of ride, Uber will tell you how many cars are available and how long it will take a driver to reach you.
If you’re happy to proceed, you will select a type of car, which will bring up your driver’s name, photo, and options to call or text them. Vehicles are represented by real-time avatars, so as they move around, the avatars move accordingly on the Google map, which you can track on your phone.
Uber will also text you with a notification that your driver is on their way. You get another text when your driver arrives at the pickup location. When your ride is over, Uber debits your account and e-mails you an invoice.
The fare paid is also displayed on the app screen and you are prompted to rate the driver. The only drawback is that Uber is a real-time service, so the one thing you can’t do is reserve a ride in advance.
Also, Uber can raise rates at peak periods, something it calls “surge pricing”, to ensure more drivers are on the roads at those times.
If you’ve been watching the news, you’ll have seen that Uber has attracted huge resistance from the traditional taxi industry in some cities that it operates in. London’s black cabs shut down the city in June, protesting that only they should be able to taxi people around the city for money. Similar protests occurred in Paris and Madrid.
And there have been challenges to the service in several US cities, where it is also facing stiff competition from similar services.
Uber’s introduction in South Africa has been smooth so far, probably because it has not made enough inroads into the business of metered taxis and doesn’t yet present a challenge to combi taxis.
It is more a “going-out” service that you might engage for you and your friends on a night out.
But those who have tried the service are stoked.
“My daughter uses it at night in Cape Town, and she is on a limited budget. She uses the UberX version. What I like is that I can map her route and time she gets home. I also know the make and registration of the car and the name of her driver,” says Louise Mitchell in Cape Town.
Kate Turner in Joburg says: “It’s great, and they pick you up in really snazzy vehicles. It’s the same price point as its competitors, but the app makes it easy to book a cab and to track where it is until it gets to you.”
Hagen Engler in Joburg agrees: “Sometimes they pick me up within a minute. From ordering a cab to payment it’s all automatic. Two clicks. You don’t need to speak to anyone if you don’t want to, and you don’t need cash. It’s the only way.”
Many of us are understandably concerned with safety, especially in Joburg. How does Uber screen its drivers? Firstly, Uber has partnered with existing transport providers, so you have an increasing number of taxi drivers coming on board the Uber platform. Lits assures that all Uber drivers are screened before they’re allowed on to the system “and we monitor driver quality”.
“Every driver on the system has a Professional Drivers Permi, which means that the driver has undergone recent police clearance in order to obtain this permit, and has no criminal record. Also, all drivers are rated by their clients after every trip. This feedback allows us to ensure we have the best drivers operating on the system,” says Lits.
“We have also recently introduced an additional layer of criminal background checks that drivers are required to undergo.”
Lits says the uptake since launching uberBLACK last year has been “incredible”. Though he declines to mention numbers, Lits says the service is already doing thousands of trips per week, and there are hundreds of drivers on the system. “Drivers like the system because it gives them freedom and flexibility. No more set shifts and hours. Our partners can pick and choose the time they work, and as all payments are done via the app, it also means the driver doesn’t have to carry cash in the vehicle, making it safer for both them and the rider.”
Lits admits that as Uber grows, it will inevitably encounter resistance by taxi operators who’ve been around for many years. “We are changing the way people think about getting around, which is bound to cause resistance by transport structures that have been in place for many years. But the transport operators who’ve partnered with us recognise that Uber is a means to grow their business, that it is about giving riders and drivers more opportunity. Essentially, we are leading the way in the future of mobility,” he says.
It’s no surprise then that the word about Uber is spreading more by word of mouth and social media than by traditional media. “Many riders recommend our app to friends and family after only a couple of uses and we often partner with events so that attendees have a safe and reliable choice in getting to and from the destination,” says Lits.
You never know when the app may come in handy. If you’ve got a teen on the party circuit, it’s a must.