Roads are associated with being the arteries of a city because they serve as avenues which people move in urban spaces writes Alan Watson. File photo: Henk Kruger / African News Agency
JOHANNESBURG - Roads are associated with being the arteries of a city because they serve as the primary avenues through which people move from A to B in urban spaces.

In European cities like London, Paris and Frankfurt, and elsewhere like Tokyo and Melbourne, citizens have the advantage of being able to leave their cars at home and use public transport to get to and from work.

Most African cities, in comparison, do not have the luxury of well-established public transport systems because such public infrastructure investment was not deemed necessary by colonial authorities in times past.

In Johannesburg, for instance, historically the only government-sponsored public transport infrastructure built anywhere near the townships - which housed the majority of urban populations - was built to move miners from one place to another.

To make matters worse, Johannesburg’s tram system was discontinued in 1961 to make way for motor cars in a quirk of apartheid history. South Africa’s minibus taxi industry - which has never received a state-sponsored subsidy - has filled the gap for millions of South Africans for decades, and since 2013, the A to B transport gap has been filled by ride-hailing services like Uber and Taxify, which have enjoyed noteworthy success in the country.

And according to reports, the Israeli taxi app Weride plans to enter the South African market by the end of the month.

Commotion

The success of the growing ride-hailing industry has caused a stir within the local transport industry - a commotion mirrored elsewhere on the continent. Last month, Uber announced it was suspending its operations in Morocco - just two years after the service launched in that country. As reported by Reuters: “Morocco only recognises conventional taxis and has no provisions for private hire vehicles.”

The market in the North African kingdom was reported to be 19000 regular passengers, serviced by about 300 drivers. While Uber has managed to avoid regulatory sanction in Nigeria, the company has clashed with its driver partners there over fees.

Meanwhile, just this week, the Egyptian government ordered Uber and local competitor Careem to halt services. This after a local court sided with 42 local taxi drivers who brought a case against the companies for deploying civilian-owned vehicles for purposes other than those licensed.

As other relatively more hospitable African markets have sought to benefit from the advantages offered by this form of transport, there have been challenges.

In South Africa, tensions between ride-hailing drivers and metered taxi drivers remain high, as incidents of violence and intimidation - mostly perpetrated by the latter - have become increasingly commonplace. One of the most prominent tragedies to surface of late involved a 21-year-old university student and Taxify driver named Siyabonga Ngcobo, who was reportedly seized by a group of men in Pretoria. Ngcobo was later found burnt to death in the boot of a car.

From time to time, even in posh spots such as the Sandton Gautrain railway station in Johannesburg, Uber and Taxify drivers have reported suffering intimidation and physical assault despite metropolitan police establishing an almost-constant visible presence in the area.

Kenya has also seen its share of ride-hailing-related unrest, with Uber drivers there sporadically reporting attacks on their vehicles, with some having had their cars set on fire.

Metered taxi drivers have a well-earned reputation for over-charging locals, taking advantage of tourists by taking roundabout routes to destinations that push up meter fares, not being polite or punctual and, in extreme cases, not being fit for service due to being intoxicated or sleep-deprived. This dynamic has left the door wide open for services like Uber and Taxify to thrive.

Speaking on the African Tech Round-Up podcast recently, Obakeng Morapeli Matlhoko, founder of South Africa’s ambitious “Uber for minibus taxis”, AftaRobot, said public transport operators were missing an opportunity by not seeing what the customer is telling them.

“By burning Uber cars, the violence, they are missing a crucial point. It’s not the Uber drivers that are messaging them (the metered taxi drivers). It is the commuters who are saying they want a better service and the better service needs to provided - and Uber happens to be the person providing it,” Matlhoko said.

“What they (metered taxi drivers) need to understand is this: even if you get rid of them (Uber and Taxify), the customer wants better service. How are you starting to change your operations? As a stand-in metered taxi operator, what kind of interface systems do you have? How easy is it for passengers to be able to use your service? How online friendly are you? This is the messaging they are missing.”

Matlhoko posits that incumbent African businesses and industries - not least the traditional metered and minibus taxi industries - would do well to bravely face up to the tech innovation impacting public transit business models and sparking widespread shifts in consumer behavioural patterns. They must realise that, while disruptive, change can be harnessed to yield significant business upside. Trying to inhibit change through rash, criminal acts, instead of positioning to win as society gradually transitions to a digital economy, will likely serve to hasten the end of the world of work that they seem so determined to cling to.

Alan Watson is a contributing tech and innovation writer for AfricanTechRoundup.com. Email him on [email protected]

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT