Axing the taxi – The end of UBER in T&T

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Above: Uber promoted its Eats product heavily in Asia. Photo courtesy Uber.

BitDepth#1148 for June 07, 2018

Last week, Uber, the popular ride sharing service, abruptly ended its operations in Trinidad and Tobago.

The company sent a statement to its customer base, stating in part: “After operating for more than a year in Trinidad and Tobago, and having made multiple efforts to create a significant change in the country in regards to mobility and opportunities for entrepreneurship, Uber has unfortunately decided to pause its operation in the country.”

“This decision was not made lightly, but at this time, we believe that there is a lack of a proper environment for innovation and technology to thrive in Trinidad and Tobago.”

The Ministry of Works and Transport immediately responded, reiterating its position on the company’s operations.

The statement noted that the Ministry of Works and Transport and the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs have had apparently unsuccessful meetings with the company regarding what it described as the “realigning of its operations in conformity with the country’s laws.”

“Firstly, Uber was required to fully disclose the particulars of its insurance coverage certification for passengers and drivers. Secondly, it was asked to disclose its taxation structures as its system purportedly operates on a deduction system as it relates to the driver’s earnings without disclosure as to the payment of corporate, withholding and other taxes and other benefits, which should accrue to its local drivers.”

Uber is well known for its aggressive penetration of the markets it identifies for its transport product. That product, as everyone should know by now, is an app and supporting billing system that makes it possible for anyone with a private car to become a taxi service.

Uber has matured to offer added services as it’s faced down resistance to its disruptive operations. In markets where it’s done well, it has introduced upscale editions of its service as Uber Black and Uber Lux, which are prescreened, upscale black car and SUV ride services respectively. UberPOP (sometimes UberX) was a cheaper version which accommodated multiple passengers in a single ride.

Uber’s autonomous driving project has had some setbacks. Image courtesy Uber.

Uber Frieght and Uber Eats have broadened the company’s reach into delivery at very different scales.

In T&T it was forced to be flexible about its no-cash policy and needed to be inventive about insurance coverage, but in the end it apparently couldn’t modify its product enough to meet the hovering pressure of government regulation, nor did it reach very far outside of established city centres, already exhaustively served by licensed taxis and well-established PH drivers.

Uber clearly met a need as online users vented emotions ranging from anger at the claims of a sluggish environment for innovation to deep sadness at a service that its users appeared to love.

Christlyn Moore, Attorney-at-Law and activist in Tobago’s politics weighed in early on the shutdown of the service.

“I used Uber from February 10 2017,” Moore said.

“My experience with Uber was a mixed bag. I got clearly psychotic drivers including one who threw me out her car after 50 seconds, unprofessional drivers who asked personal questions, drivers unconcerned about customer safety, or were overly familiar.”

“On the other hand I also got drivers who were courteous and polite who went over and beyond to reassure and to assist. As a customer who used the service at least twice a day (and as much as five times a day), four days a week, I was more satisfied than dissatisfied.”

The company’s presence encouraged the development of rival services built using readily available supporting software, but local solutions never mustered the market presence of the import.

That hasn’t always turned out to be the case for Uber, which abruptly shuttered operations in eight countries across Southeast Asia just five days before it piquantly ended its services in TT.

Where it hasn’t merged with strong competitors, rival services are preparing to fill the void Uber’s sudden departure has left in those markets.

For all its press and promotional savvy, Uber has been a troubled company right from the start, losing money in most of the years of its operations.

New CEO Dana Khosrowshahi is keen to reposition the company which was shaped by its combative founder Travis Kalanick, on tracks that are less divisive and more profitable.

Uber has burned through an estimated US$10.7 billion since it began operations, losing an astonishing $4.5 billion in 2017 alone.

Khosrowshahi is working to place the company on a more solid footing and to deliver more accurate accounting of its business, which has been held to be nonstandard for much of the company’s existence.

In one year in Trinidad, Uber gave this country a schooling in how deeply a disruptive technology can change a resource held to be immutable for decades.

An entirely new cadre of drivers began delivering passengers to their destinations, many of them earning wages that supported their families while satisfying customers.

It wouldn’t be out of line to say that Uber, and the competition it encouraged, fundamentally changed the notion of the PH driver and offered a model that can be built on for the future.

Making that happen will require the Government to take a less adversarial position on the grey public transport market and demand more from drivers than a willingness to ‘pull bull,’ as the old slang described such services.

“The reality is that public transportation is neither sufficient nor reliable enough for the needs of the public,” said Jason Baptiste, a local business executive.

“That is why there was an opportunity for the government to be proactive in their engagement. The press releases from the Ministry of Works and Transport didn’t appear to reflect a collaborative approach.”

A group of dedicated former Uber drivers from TT are moving their product to an open platform called RideConnect (rideconnect.com) and described as “a private, social ridesharing marketplace.” The former UberTT drivers will unify their services with the tag TTDRV.

For UberTT, a door has closed – though from their customers’ perspective, it was slammed shut in their faces – but another portal has opened.

It’s one that should offer a vista of opportunities to a group of largely young entrepreneurs who embraced the disruptive qualities of modern technology, to the TT government who can take a leap forward here in addressing public transportation issues with an eye on public safety, and to a growing sector of the public keen to embrace a culture of convenient ridesharing.

Full interviews with keen UberTT users Moore and Baptiste are here.