From getting out of a bad date to making your way to that supper club pop up, it’s never been easier to scroll through different cab apps offering a quicker – and cheaper – ride to your door without standing on rainy street corners. And with the number of UK rapes having risen by 31% in the past year, the urgent need for female safety is more important than ever. So surely the advent of cab apps from Hailo to Uber have made it easier (not to mention safer) for women to get from one place to the next.
But with hundreds of cab apps competing, are they necessarily a force for good? Some – especially Uber – have been blasted as unsafe for women and it’s not hard to see why. In March this year, UN Women cancelled their partnership with Uber, prompted by sexual assault allegations. And in the last few months in the UK, an Uber driver was accused of forcing a woman to have sex with him, while another threatened to cut a woman’s neck after cancelling before the car arrived. Across the pond, American women are faring no better with a myriad of sexual assault allegations and harassment claims.
But while we can’t – and shouldn’t – dispute these allegations, is Uber the victim of a very well-executed smear campaign? It’s certainly not hard to see why the rise of the ride-sharing behemoth has ruffled a few feathers after monopolising the cab landscape all over the world. The Google-backed brainchild of two San Francisco entrepreneurs in 2010, the app launched in the US and now operates in 60 countries around the world. Its dominance on our streets even led to fears of the death of the London black cab, resulting in street protests against Uber in September, bringing traffic in the capital to an abrupt standstill. And after The High Court ruled the app is legal just this month – ending a bitter drawn-out battle between Uber and rival black cab drivers who unsuccessfully argued that Uber’s calculation of fares is illegal – its revenues have continued to soar. When you know that a black cab is subject to rigorous safety checks, why then has Uber risen in popularity?
I spoke with a female Uber driver to see what she had to say about the scandal surrounding it. Neha, a 31-year-old female driving partner who’s worked for Uber for nearly two years, is keen to shed the image of Uber as dangerous for women, maintaining that their ability to record everything assuages any fears for female passengers. “There’s a record of the driver, the driver’s location, the passenger and their drop-off location,” she stresses. “There’s real accountability so if anything goes wrong, it can be solved by police quickly.”
Communications representative Alana Saltzman attributes Uber’s “sheer size” to the “increased possibility of an incident”. She said: “The scale of our business is misrepresented when discussing an incident that has occurred on the Uber platform. Our platform facilitates millions of trips a day in almost 350 cities across more than 60 countries.
“We understand that women have specific concerns and we’re working hard to create an environment that’s safe for both female riders and partner-drivers. However, we are constantly working to make our platforms better so that means that every day, over a million rides get more transparent, more accountable and safer for both men and women.”
While you can’t argue with Saltzman’s sentiments (a quick round up from my Uber-using friends all said their journeys were hassle-free), it’s hard to ignore the app’s invasion of privacy: when downloading the app, it can access messages, location, take pictures and videos as well as read personal information. And only private-hire drivers undergo the same background checks that are conducted for Black Cab licenses. Rather contradictory when its representative says one of the key features of Uber’s platform is the “advantages that technology brings to embed safety features into the app for female riders”.
Is it any wonder then that some companies have resorted to female-centred cab apps? SheRides, founded by Stella Mateo this year in New York, is tailored as a “for women driven by women” car service that connects female passengers with female drivers. While it’s yet to take off in the US, the issue has even reached UK shores with services such as London Lady Chauffeurs dedicated to ‘driving women by women’.
Thankfully, some cab apps including Hailo have been implementing measures to ensure safer journeys for women. Mitchell Fox, representative at Hailo, says: “All our black cab drivers are checked by the Criminal Records Bureau and registered with Transport for London. Hailo provides the license plate and driver details of your taxi driver prior to arrival and allows you to track all aspects of your journey.
“You can be assured that because you’re travelling with a licensed black cab, your driver knows all the roads to get you home via the safest and most direct route possible.”
Meanwhile, some cab apps have gone further in their commitment to promoting safety for women. Splitcab, a new mobile app, is currently the only cab app working with Yoti, a digital identity app which has face recognition and matching fingerprint software for their drivers.
Founder Davide Machado adds that while the app wasn’t initially targeted at women, safety measures like working with car companies, not directly with drivers, have led to a gender balance of 70% women on their books.
Ultimately, it’s sad that for some, resorting to driving with a woman is the only way to feel safer. If car apps ensured a sustained commitment to more rigorous background checks, there would be no need for a cab app targeted to the needs of women.
After all, no means of transportation can ever be 100% safe, but ideally the only risk we’d be taking is the meat in that 2am kebab.
Main image © iStock/Antonio Guillem