Most of us have heard of Uber, but since its launch in 2009 the company has attracted a remarkable amount of controversy. First founded in San Francisco, Uber allows members of the public to earn money by effectively becoming self-employed taxi drivers; the company has now spread to more than 66 countries and over 500 cities worldwide, 20 of which are in the UK. As of September this year, one of those cities is York – so will it be of any use to us as students? And what impact could it have on York’s local taxi services?
Once registered as an Uber driver (according to the website, the process takes less than four minutes), you use your own car to pick up members of the public and transport them to wherever they need to be, earning money in the process.
Customers (or ‘riders’) can ‘hail a cab’ from the free-to-download Uber app, which tells the closest driver that a journey has been requested. The rider can then see the driver’s photograph, along with their name and car registration number. They can watch the car arrive in real-time on a map, and receive a notification when the driver has arrived to pick them up.
Since its launch, Uber has become remarkably popular and a whole host of other similar applications like Lyft and Hailo have followed in its wake. Although these are also rising in popularity, none can really compete with the success of Uber which even launched a helicopter service in Sao Paulo, Brazil, earlier this year.
It’s true that there are numerous benefits to using Uber, and ;it’s easy to see why many opt fr them over alternative transport services. For instance, Uber is a cashless system: riders register their credit or debit card with the app before requesting a ride. During the ride the app calculates the fare, usually depending on the amount of time the journey takes; upon arrival at the required destination, the app automatically transfers payment directly to the driver.
For students, Uber can be particularly handy: the majority of us will predominantly travel between town and campus or surrounding areas, and if somebody is already in an Uber taxi and travelling in the same direction, you can request a ride from that cab and share the far with the other rider.
Ellie Stott, a second-year English student, thinks the Uber service could be useful for students who club regularly: “[on nights out] we’ve been told a taxi couldn’t come for another hour to an hour and a half to pick us up,” she says. “Getting an Uber would probably reduce the waiting time as I can see one that’s nearby.”
Uber has even been labelled ‘pirate taxis’ by some unions
It’s also claimed that Uber is cheaper than other services. Speaking to local media an Uber spokesperson claimed that to travel from York train station to main campus would cost between £6-7, and to Heslington East campus between £8-9, depending on traffic. There’s also the fact that Uber drivers don’t have access to riders’ personal numbers, unlike taxi drivers, which can make some customers feel safer, as can the fact that drivers and riders can rate and review each other through the app.
However, Uber has attracted huge amounts of criticism since its launch, being labelled ‘pirate taxis’ by some taxi drivers’ unions. In February of this year, around 8,000 London black cab drivers staged a protest against regulation changes by Transport for London which licensed Uber in the capital by halting traffic around Whitehall, Westminster and the West End, blocking whole lanes with their iconic cabs. It’s believed that this one day of strike action cost the economy around £125 million, which only goes to show the significance of their industry.
the ‘Knowledge of London’ course is the world’s most demanding training course for taxi drivers
London black cab drivers have to pass the ‘Knowledge of London’ course and test, first initiated in (and little changed since) 1865. It is the world’s most demanding training course for taxi cab drivers: by the end, black cabbies are supposedly experts on London, so it is little wonder that it takes 12 examinations and an average of 34 months to pass.
Uber drivers, on the other hand, have no such test to pass in any of the cities they work in; this means it cannot be guaranteed that your driver knows the best or shortest route, so it may not work out cheaper after all. Uber has been criticised for its ‘surge pricing’ – a system whereby prices rise when there is excess demand for drivers, such as on busy nights or in bad weather.
What’s more, it has been argued that although Uber drivers are licensed by city councils and suchlike, there is little stopping them taking advantage of, say, intoxicated students after a night out; given that payment is transferred automatically, the driver could take a longer route back in order to earn more money.
In May of this year, new figures revealed that violent offences against taxi drivers have risen from 856 in 2014 to 1,403 the following year – a rise of more than 60 per cent. Black cabbies blamed Uber for the large increase, citing their inadequate knowledge of the city; since Uber arrived in London in 2012 the total number of offences against cab drivers has almost doubled.
It also doesn’t take a particularly lengthy web search to find horror stories of incidents against riders, too – in May this year, the Metropolitan Police Service revealed that 32 claims of sexual assault or rape had been made against Uber drivers in London in the previous 12 months.
Streamline has a safety policy in place specifically for students
Yet there are many untrue rumours that circulate about the danger of Uber drivers, one being that their required CRB check only goes back six months, whilst for other cab drivers it stretches back six years; in reality this is not the case – the checks are exactly the same and cover the same time period. Uber argues that their rating service, GPS tracking and the fact that their drivers carry photo ID (unlike many other cab services) all make their service safer than some professional companies.
Here at the University, Streamline Taxis is the recommended service for students; their business cards and number are handed out in Freshers’ Welcome Packs. They provide a reliable 24-hour service, let you know the price of the journey before you go into the car, and even open their taxi office up during the night so students have somewhere safe to wait for a cab after their night out.
Streamline provide a 10 per cent student discount, and also have a safety policy in place specifically for students at York universities. If students have run out of cash or are too intoxicated to pay for their taxi ride, they can instead show their student card for a free ride home, and then pay the following day at the Streamline office.
It’s hard to say for certain what impact Uber will have on York’s current taxi services or on its residents, students and locals alike. Its lower prices and easy-to-use app might seem an attractive prospect to students, but as with any similar service it’s important to exercise caution and, as ever, keep yourself safe.