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Getting Home: Uber

Friday 1st August 2014

This week, we’ve been looking at different ways people get home at night: cycling in Christchurch, walking in Dunedin and taking the late bus in Nelson. For Aucklanders – and, soon, Wellingtonians – they start the journey home on their smartphones. 

Already well established in the United States, the ride-sharing service Uber launched in Auckland in May, and a Wellington launch is planned soon, though a date is yet to be confirmed. Uber spokesperson Katie Curran thinks Wellington’s relatively small but dense city population will be an ideal environment for the service: “Uber plans to be in every city [in New Zealand] at some point…but right now, we’re focused on Auckland and Wellington.”

Uber screenshot
The Uber app


The service is available in 130 cities and has a growing user base of both self-employed drivers and city dwellers looking for an efficient way to get from A to B. A user’s location is detected through GPS or entered manually, and is matched with an available driver in the area. The driver’s name, photo and car registration appears along with the current location of the car, which is tracked as it approaches the user’s pick-up location. All fares are charged straight to the user’s credit card, and receipts.

The Uber model is an example of the peer-to-peer economy, or ‘sharing economy’, in which technology is used to allow ad hoc collaboration between individuals to create mass efficiencies. Though it seems smaller scale than capitalism, it’s big business for those getting it right. Uber was recently valued at $18.2 billion – about the same as Avis Budget Rentals Group and Hertz Global combined.

As such, Uber’s shaking up the taxi industry worldwide. The New Zealand Taxi Federation has expressed concern about the safety and regulation of the service, and have called for it to be shut down until the company comes under the same regulations as approved taxi organisations (ATOs). Approved taxis in New Zealand must have 24-hour dispatch and must have a suitable camera monitoring device.

The app has caused mass protests throughout Europe with claims of unfair competition leading to taxi driver strikes from London to Madrid – though these have ironically boosted users of the app on the continent by 850 per cent. Mike Brown, Uber’s regional general manager, believes the actions to block or regulate against Uber are displays of  “vested interests concerned with keeping the status quo at the expense of the consumer”.

Dunedin Taxis chairman Tony Ross told the Otago Daily Times Uber passengers are putting their safety at risk because they were unable to use their discretion as to which vehicle to take. “If there’s a row of taxis on a rank, you don’t have to take the first one. You can vet the drivers by looks, appearance, colour, creed or race – whatever takes your fancy.”

Like other sharing-based apps and websites, Uber is based on user ratings, with passengers and drivers rating each other out of five after each ride. If drivers fall below a certain standard, they’re no longer able to offer rides, and users with poor ratings and negative comments are less likely to be offered a pickup.

Its been suggested that the system could provide a solution to racial profiling in the taxi industry, and Uber emphasises the diversity of their drivers: “we have a zero tolerance response to racism or any other form of discrimination in either direction”.

On my way home recently I asked my Uber driver, a retired Fijian radio broadcaster, how he went about rating users. “The only thing I won’t stand for is racism. Otherwise I’ll give everyone I pick up five stars.”

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Lena is the Project Co-ordinator for The Wireless. Prior to joining Radio New Zealand and The Wireless, she worked in marketing as a video producer and campaign specialist. Lena trained as a classical pianist and loves Scandinavian crime dramas and well-tailored pants.
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