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It’s the end of the work day, I get into my Uber and settle in for a contemplative ride home. The driver begins the trip and starts a meter as well. I am not sure why he has done the latter but I say nothing and we begin.
Half way through the ride as I direct him toward the turn into my neighbourhood, he says to me: “don’t worry about the meter, it is just a precaution.”
My first thought is that perhaps the cab company he works for (that has now joined Uber) is comparing prices to see if the move from their normal operations to Uber is feasible.
“Precaution?” I ask.
“Against the cops,” he says.
Now my interest is piqued. Why would an Uber driver need to run a technically bogus meter in case he gets stopped by the cops?
As we begin the uphill climb toward my house he divulges that all is not well with Uber in Cape Town. It turns out my driver had received a letter from the Western Cape Metered Taxi Council telling him that if he was found using Uber, his permit would be confiscated.
Uber’s foray into to the world of transportation and cabbing has not been a smooth one. It is currently facing several lawsuits and disputes around the globe. Its entry into Africa seemed the smoothest, without all that much fuss from government agencies. All that might be about to change.
When Uber began operating in the city, it seemed to drift in with very few problems except user adoption and app education. My driver says that the council wasn’t very happy with this and asked Uber for permits for its drivers, which the San Francisco-based company duly provided. However tunes have now changed. According to a letter he received, which he claims has gone to other drivers as well, Uber is in contravention of the Taxi Council’s per kilometer billing requirements due its per kilometer and per minute billing system. One could argue that Uber is not a taxi service but a private car and driver hire platform.
“I don’t understand it,” my Uber driver tells me. “They say R10 a kilometer and Uber charges R7 but the charge is between the driver and the customer. The only time you contradict the permit is when you charge more than it recommends, Uber charges less.”
The letter states that Uber is not a member of the Western Cape Metered Taxi Council and has not registered as a PRE operator. Hence the council driver is targeting its letters to the drivers that hold permits. The letter further states that it understands that Uber is an e-hailing solution and that the government is working to move the industry forward by looking for e-hailing options as it would bridge the gap.
Evidently Uber has a technological advantage to the other operators and the government doesn’t want drivers using it because it hasn’t bridged this gap. The crux of the dispute is that Uber is taking away the work of the established taxi industry in Cape Town.
“There is nothing they can do really,” he says. “I just put on my meter so they can see it is running.”
Since the launch of UberX, the company has been working with a number of the taxi companies in the city to bring its more affordable service to consumers.
“Any time a disruptive technology like Uber enters a market that hasn’t seen any innovation for decades, there will inevitably be resistance from existing structures,” says Anthony Le Roux, Uber Cape Town General Manager.
However, it seems it is not particularly worried by the letter or the “resistance”, as it calls it, by the Taxi Council.
“Uber does however work very successfully with a large number of metered taxi operators on the UberX product, so this resistance is by no means uniform,” Le Roux adds.
“We’re working proactively with the regulator in Cape Town to make sure that Uber will continue to be available to get Capetonians around safely, seamlessly and efficiently. In the mean time, existing transportation operators are required to abide by the rules of their operating licences, which is perfectly doable with Uber.”
My driver thinks that the Taxi Council should join Uber because he believes it is much more efficient and he argues that as a driver he is making more money working with Uber than with a normal taxi service.
“Before the launch of UberX, Uber went to all the big taxi companies to ask them to join the service and they said no. I don’t know why they are fighting now because they had the opportunity and the opportunity is still there.”
He argues that the reason why Uber is an issue now is because big taxi companies on the council are trying to make up new rules to protect their interests. He says that as a taxi driver, the company walks away with more money than the driver and these drivers work 24 hour shifts.
We have reached out to the Taxi Council and received the following response:
The department of transport and public works in terms of the operating licence has a relationship only with operating licence holders. Uber is a software application provider and is not an operating licence holder. Thus, the letter referred to was sent to the Metered Taxi Council for distribution to members in order to ensure that members comply with the operating licence conditions. The reason as to why the software application of Uber is in contravention of operations relating to the operating licence conditions are stipulated in the attached letter.
It also went on to say that where the driver is the operating licence holder, he is indeed danger of losing their licence.
“Where the driver is not the operator, the operating licence holder, Yes he is in danger of losing their licence. This has no bearing on the validity and exposure of a drivers licence.”