Uber Comes Under Fire Abroad

Vlad Savov sums up this week’s bad news for the ride-share company:

In Madrid, a judge has ruled that Uber should cease all activities in Spain because its drivers are unregistered and thus act as unfair competition to existing taxi services. … Authorities in Thailand have reached a similar conclusion, deeming Uber’s operation of unlicensed and uninsured taxi services to be unlawful, and have also asked the company to cease business — at least until it starts using properly accredited drivers rather than private cars.

India has already instituted a ban on Uber in Delhi following the rape of a female passenger, but now the country is broadening its prohibition and advising all its state governments to enforce it. It specifically bans the use of web-based taxi-hailing apps, meaning the ban will have an impact on others beyond Uber, but the focus on the California company is intensifying with the Delhi Police “also exploring the issue of possible legal liability of the taxi service Uber in the crime committed,” according to Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

To Jason Koebler, the incident in New Delhi demonstrates that Uber doesn’t care about riders’ safety:

Uber’s entry into in India show that the corporation’s sensibilities and values—that is, to crush existing taxi services and its tech savvy competitors like Lyft—haven’t changed a bit, even if some high-profile cases (like the​ time it called a several-hour abduction of a woman an “inefficient route”) in the US have forced the company to take a modicum of responsibility for its drivers. Now, we get at least a basic background check and nonsense like the “Safe Rides Fee” (which only exists in Canada and the​ US, according to the company).

But in developing countries, Uber is making the same mistakes with rider safety that it made in the United States. It’s treating these countries like the Wild West until it’s forced to change: “If [Uber] can bully its way in the US, and not care about law and regulations there, then it has absolutely nothing to worry about in India,” wrote o​ne internet commenter who claimed to have experience with the company there. “The law enforcement is weak, to say the least.”

But Danny Vinik blames the Indian authorities, not Uber:

Uber offers a new transportation option that offers users at least some ability to hold their drivers accountable for their actions. That doesn’t mean it’s a cure-all. In many cases, Uber’s ability to ensure the safety of its user will rely on the infrastructure already in place. Ultimately, improving that infrastructure is up to the local communities and officials, not Uber. That doesn’t mean Uber is blameless, but their cars offer one of the safest traveling experiences in India. At least the company has a background check system to speak of, and users have the ability to rate their drivers. With other transportation optionsrickshaws or local taxis, for instancethat isn’t necessarily the case. Uber’s not perfect, but it’s an improvement. This brutal incident doesn’t change that.

And as Amanda Taub points out, Indian cities are often unsafe for women to get around in, whatever mode of transportation they choose:

I saw this effect firsthand during trips to India in the past year. Everyone had different advice for me about how to stay safe, which meant that in the aggregate I was warned against using every possible form of transportation. (Only use radio taxis, they’re safer, never use local taxis. Don’t use radio taxis, you don’t know who they’ll send, better to rely on these local taxi drivers, we know them. Don’t take autos during the nighttime. Don’t take autos during the daytime. Come with us in the auto, it’s safer than going on your own. Don’t walk, take a bicycle rickshaw from the train station. Don’t take bicycle rickshaws. Don’t take the train.)

Given the choice between taking all of that advice and never leaving my apartment, versus selectively ignoring it and getting on with my day, I chose the latter. But finding safe and reliable transportation where and when I needed it was still always a challenge. That challenge is of course far more significant for Indian women, who have to face it every day, usually without the resources that I had at my disposal.

That was the problem that Uber needed to solve. But the facts surrounding this alleged assault suggest that they have failed to do so.

Mallika Dutt expects the Uber ban to make that problem worse, not better:

The quick decision to ban Uber is important in that it sends a message to all companies operating in this space that they need to follow regulations with seriousness. However, it is already unsafe for women to get around in Delhi. The metro has separate compartments for women—but what do they do when they step off the train? That’s partly why Uber and other private cab companies are in demand in the first place. Decreasing access to multiple modes of alternative transportation for women is a short-term and limited solution. Rather than further limiting the options available to women, how about increasing women’s safety not only by enforcing regulations and providing safer modes of operation, but by also increasing the number of men who hold themselves and others accountable for their behavior and actions?

The way Leonid Bershidsky sees it, the incident “highlights one of the web-based car service’s biggest problems: In some places, there is little to distinguish it from the anarchic system it seeks to replace”:

Those who live in the U.S. and other rich countries find it hard to understand the near-irrelevance of Uber’s ride-sharing model in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. Many countries in these regions have time-honored unregulated gypsy cab traditions. In Argentina and Uruguay, people call or text for a trucho. In Russian cities, if you raise your arm by the roadside, a car — almost never a licensed taxi — typically pulls up within minutes, unless it’s the dead of night.

His bottom line:

In emerging economies with shaky taxi regulation, Uber can’t be disruptive if it is as lax as the incumbents. Its offering can only be of value if it tries to be more like a traditional Western taxi service, obeying strict rules and convincingly projecting an image of safety and reliability. That is something it isn’t equipped to do now.