File image: IOL.
JOHANNESBURG - When your brand becomes a verb it tends to mean that you’ve created something so pervasive and popular that you risk losing your brand name to the act of doing whatever it is your company offers. 

This can be challenging - back in the 2000s, for example, Xerox was entreating its customers to return to the old-fashioned idea of “photocopying” their documents, as the verb Xerox subsumed a high-tech brand into a day-to-day office chore.

However, at Uber we welcome the fact that we’ve “verbed up”. Ubering, as many across the globe now know, is the act of requesting a driver via the app on your cell phone and, of course, we recognise that Uber is not the only company that offers such a service.

But Uber is the only verb among them, and we think that’s because Uber was first. Being first to market comes with an interesting mix of benefits and challenges.

Among the challenges, especially with what we know is a disruptive and all-new technology, is that we are the first to ask questions of not only existing businesses and customers, but also existing regulations that were devised long before the scope and import of dramatic technological change was ever imagined.

As Uber verbed up, so did attention from lawmakers. Since launching in South Africa we have been working openly with regulators across the country. We know that Uber has driven a dramatic change in the transport sector.

Of course, we believe the change Uber has brought is, on balance, an enormously positive step for transportation - the full consequences of which we have yet to fully realise.

It is one of those technologies that cannot be unlearned, and so it is up to regulators to create an environment that works both now and as the technology continues to evolve.

Globally, data reflects that services like Uber are offering transport options that supplement - rather than detract from - existing public transit modes, particularly during rush hour. Most of the shift in transport usage appears to take place off-peak and after hours, when safety, convenience and flexibility are prioritised.

In South Africa the uptake of Uber has been phenomenal. We have more than 13000 drivers regularly using our app, over one million active riders use the Uber app and more than 25000 people in the country use the app 10 times or more a week. That is why we think developing smart transport regulations that take into account the likely medium-term change that technology such as Uber will bring is critical to developing the megacities of the near future.

Developing smart, future-proof transport regulations offers South Africa a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address its various transport challenges, especially given the country’s unique urban spatial geography.

As a response to make our app more inclusive to the unbanked population of South Africa, Uber recently introduced a cash payment system to give more customers access to our services. Where there are new demands, innovative technologies can find a way to address them.

It’s a question of working with what we know, and ensuring that South Africa is on the right side of change.

Most recently we launched Uber Movement, a website which we make available to regulators and the public, that can and should be used by regulators in their planning: from identifying more popular and convenient transit routes, more commonly used pick up and drop off points, and areas where there is growing demand for convenient transport options.

This information, judiciously applied, can result in myriad wider benefits, including more responsive safety solutions, addressing transport needs not previously known or understood, and developing infrastructure based on the evolving needs and desires of citizens.

It is critical that conversations around the changes in the public transport sector begin in earnest. South Africa’s lawmakers and urban planners might feel the seemingly understandable and instinctive urge to resist or limit such change in the belief that they are protecting people.

A knee-jerk response to challenging technological circumstances won’t protect the fragile progress being made towards sustainable economic and wider upliftment.

Regulators can and should take into account the long-term benefits presented by ongoing innovation. With real engagement with the opportunities that technology such as Uber’s offers its cities, South Africa stands the chance to take a two-generational leap in transport development from being a congested urban sprawl to becoming smartly integrated, just and inclusive in only a few years.

We’re living in the most exciting time for urban transport since the development of the first autobahns in the mid-1930s. Opportunities abound for those willing to engage proactively with the near future, one of those opportunities being to take advantage of the smart data being generated to create more inclusive, safe, clean, and accessible cities for all. 

Let’s start the conversation. Time is short, and there are many unimagined verbs waiting for their chance.

Alon Lits is the general manager of Uber for sub-Saharan Africa.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Independent Group.

- BUSINESS REPORT