To Uber or not to Uber?

Car Service ‘Uber’ has realised itself as one of the most valuable tech start-ups of all time since its launch in 2009.

The phrase “To take an Uber” has become almost synonymous with “flagging a cab”. With over 40 million users and more than 2 million drivers, according to Uber, they maintain strict control over the car hailing market. Uber claim that they have completed over 5 billion rides and facilitate 10 million rides a day.

It is easy to see the reasons for their success when examining the business model. A car that arrives to your location at the press of a button is already a much more pleasant alternative to waving one’s arms about in the street hoping a passing cab will stop, or going through the bother of speaking to another human being on the phone. The fact that what you pay to Uber is often much lower than what you would pay to the taxi for the same trip is just a bonus, as well as being able to use saved card or Paypal details for payment. The lower fare is made possible by subsidies to the drivers, the true cost of a trip being much higher than what users end up paying.

In theory, Uber appears to be the best option for on-demand transport, but in practice there are a few problems with the car service. Uber’s cars are driven by contractors rather than employees, meaning that you ride in a personal vehicle rather than company property. Most users find this results in drivers being a bit chattier than normal cab drivers, which is fine for the most part. However, some tell of instances where drivers get a little too comfortable.

Rory Mcneil, Glasgow local, recalls an instance where he was in an Uber with some friends and the driver announced that his shift was almost over. This would not have been an issue had it not meant that the driver decided it was acceptable to participate in a drug deal from the seat of his car, purchasing marijuana in a rather amicable fashion, claims Rory.

Rory then went on to tell me of a further incident that happened that same week, where he and the same friends ordered a six-seater Uber. Upon the car’s arrival they found that the driver had her handbag occupying the passenger seat and refused to move it so that one of them could sit there. Rory and his friends ended up needing to split into two groups and order an additional Uber to circumvent the stubborn driver.

Other Uber users I spoke to referred to the unreliability of the app. It seems that it is a very common issue for an Uber never to arrive, or for the driver to get lost on the way to your location, leaving you staring at an image of a (your) car moving in circles on the digital map. Apply this to a date scenario and there is you and your date standing outside in the cold, waiting for a cab that will never arrive. You could hardly call that romantic, and would be very easily avoided through the swift hailing of a cab.

The digital methods employed by Uber can result in unforeseen consequences for its users. The app will often have you standing at the side of the street staring at your phone, unaware to the world around you. Thieves have recognised this opportunity and taken to riding tandem on scooters, one driving and the other snatching phones from the hands of the unsuspecting victims. Aaron Dobbins was on a street in Bangkok when he had his phone stolen right from his own hands, “I had been so good about keeping my phone safe in my pocket, then it was gone before I even realised it was being taken from me.”

So use of the app is not always quite as smooth as one would hope, and the increased prices at peak times, referred to by Uber as ‘surge prices’, can really catch you unaware with their non-specificity. More than once have I found myself waiting for surge prices to go away for so long that I could have walked to my destination in the time I was waiting. Time and place end up being the biggest factors in the decision of cab or Uber, as well as praying that your driver doesn’t need his fix.

By Jacob Wright