Uber-volution

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If you’ve ever going to forget your keys in a taxi that just picked you up from your house, pray it’s an Uber.

I did that, foolishly and uncharacteristically, a few Saturdays ago. Instead of rushing to change the locks on my doors, I got hold of Uber, who contacted the driver who delivered my keys back to me. But, here’s the best part: He refused to give them to my wife (he arrived when I was out) until he had spoken to me.

Not for one minute did I think I wouldn’t get my keys back. I wouldn’t have been so trusting nor nonchalant if it was a South African metered taxi.

There is a storm of protest against Uber around the world, including violent protests in France last week and licencing disputes in Cape Town; and threats outside the Sandton Gautrain against Uber drivers this week.

Uber LogoSouth Africa has now joined a global chorus against Uber, which is alternatively hailed as the future of transport (and, along with Airbnb, providing a business model to underpin the sharing economy) or the death of the poor, woe-is-me taxi industry.

I feel for those New York taxi drivers who apparently pay half a million dollars for their operating badges or the London black cabbies who have to memorise all the streets. If it was 1905, the year the Model T Ford appeared, it would be the equivalent of demanding a slow lane for horse-drawn carriages. But both the licence and memorise models of providing an essential service have been superseded by GPS and mapping software, and the power of a smartphone. And newly enabled, social media-active, vociferous consumers.

And, frankly, the taxi industry sucks. It is an industry desperately in need of an upgrade. I’ve been stuck in so many painful situations, unable to find a cab, or have stood in the rain waiting, only for the first one to appear to pick up someone a block up the road from me.

I’ve despaired at the taxi industry in South Africa. Every time I’ve ever had to catch one, I have dreaded it. High-end services were prohibitively costly, while the ordinary cabs were often filthy and smelly. One taxi I caught from the FNB Stadium after a concert a few years broke down on the Soweto Highway. When I called a well-known company to send help, they simply said no. Calling a taxi often required waiting an inexcusably long time for it to arrive.

I’ve often caught taxis home after a dinner party or night at a bar, only to have to fight with the driver who thinks because his fare is drunk, he can try rip them off. This often involves “meter isn’t working, but I’ll give you a better deal” cash-under-the-table option that gets offered. Sigh.

It was not only expensive but it’s frustrating. Infuriating. Exacerbating.

An alternative to not having to drive drunk was Goodfellas, which sends two drivers, one of whom drives your car and the other the “chase” car. But I had to abandon using it after its service becoming unreliable and unprofessional. Once, the two drivers arrived an hour and a half late, and, after their car stalled, asked us to jumpstart it.

So I was overjoyed when Uber launched in South Africa. Suddenly, like the rest of the civilised world, I could order a cab that arrives timeously and be charged reasonably (without me having to haggle with the corruptible driver). Helpfully, the cars are also clean and the driver knows how to drive without stalling.

And, as my wife and all my female friends regularly point out, they feel safe ordering an Uber. I’ve lost count of the times these friends have told me about lecherous cabbies and other potentially worse situations they’ve experienced pre-Uber.

Uber is five years old and valued at $41bn. The last time a five-year-old company had such a dramatic, disruptive effect was Facebook. Before that YouTube. Then Google. A few disgruntled cabbies, thankfully, can’t derail progress.

This column was first published on Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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