Public transport plays a critical role in economic and social development. It not only facilitates the movement of people but provides access to economic and social opportunities and creates markets for consumers, producers and suppliers alike.

The recognition of this truth has become increasingly evident in the approach being taken by governments across the world to deliver on their commitment to the achievement of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) — a set of 17 global development targets adopted by UN member countries in 2015 as a shared blueprint by which to achieve peace and prosperity for people and the planet by 2030.

As that deadline approaches, governments are actively looking for ways to fast track the work they are doing towards their SDG objectives. Building and maintaining sustainable and effective transport sectors have emerged as a key pillar on which such development must take place.

Against this backdrop, the Competition Commission’s recent market inquiry into land-based public passenger transport was a significant step in the right direction for the sustainable development of SA’s public transport sector and the tens of millions of people who directly or indirectly depend on it for their livelihoods.

Given the vital role both the metered taxi and e-hailing industries play in the country’s public transport sector, and the challenges both have faced in recent years, it was heartening that a good portion of the inquiry was devoted to investigating these industries.     

Of particular significance is the very positive approach taken by the commission in its recommendation to remove area restrictions. By allowing all transport operators to move freely around cities, access to economic opportunities is increased, for them and their riders.

The safety of riders and drivers has long been a concern within the public transport sector as a whole, and we fully endorse the commission’s recommendation for the establishment of a specialised division within the SA Police Service that will focus specifically on addressing public transport safety-related matters. Of course, all stakeholders in the public transport sector have a vital role to play in making safety a top priority and working together to ensure no harm comes to users.

This is especially true in a situation where safety concerns arise as a result of tensions between old and new participants in the sector. Uber has embraced its responsibility for resolving these issues and we have introduced a variety of safety measures such as an in-app emergency button and, most recently, our PIN code verification feature, to help lessen the risks to both drivers and riders.

We are cautiously optimistic that the ongoing efforts to unite all participants in public transport in a shared commitment to a safe and secure sector will soon yield positive results, hopefully in the form of a fully representative industry body to deal with safety-related matters.

It was also pleasing to note that the commission’s findings highlighted the ongoing issue of licensing backlogs, and recommended that all pending applications be finalised expeditiously. This approach reinforces Uber’s long-standing view of the broken licensing system, which is that all stakeholders and affected parties must make themselves more open to a collaborative approach to resolving the numerous licensing process and infrastructure challenges that are still causing often lengthy issuing delays for operating licences.

We are convinced that this is not an irresolvable issue. But it does require a willingness to work together to identify and implement workable solutions. In the interim we are doing as much as we can to make the licence application process easier for drivers and enable them to use the Uber app without any limitations. We believe that this aligns with the recommendations of the Competition Commission.

Unfortunately, the report also contained a few areas of concern, especially relating to the metered and e-hailing industries. The most notable of these was the commission’s findings relating to apparently declining driver earnings. The inquiry erroneously compared the minimum fares for two separate Uber products, which have independent pricing, namely uberX in 2014 and uberBlack fares in 2013. It also does not take into account temporary versus permanent pricing.

Therefore the appropriate comparison for uberX fares is R15 net earnings per minimum fare trip in 2014, versus R18.75 today on minimum fare trips only. It is important to note that minimum fare trips only make up a small percentage of overall trips in the city.

In a country entering economic lockdown where thousands of jobs are being shed and economic conditions continue to worsen, Uber has produced over 13,000 active and sustainable economic opportunities. And given the important role transport will play in enabling them to sustain an income when the lockdown is lifted, the cost and flexibility of transport should never be allowed to become prohibitive.

As noted by the commission, Uber has begun to limit its intake of new drivers. This is essentially a form of self-regulation and is based on our assessment of the required balance between supply and demand. In addition to helping stabilise the income opportunities of existing drivers, the introduction of a new vehicle onboarding waiting list ensures our driver partnerships are fair and equitable.

Uber is also pleased that the commission has made no recommendations regarding the capping of fares, as this allows us to retain our proven pricing model, which balances the needs and affordability criteria of riders with the earnings potential of  drivers. We continue to do as much as possible to enhance the earnings potential of drivers, and leverage innovative rewards like fuel rebates, cellphone deals and special offers on vehicle maintenance to help them 

Given the widely accepted projection that by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in its cities, an effective and accessible public transport sector is essential for every city. Technology, innovation and collaboration are the non-negotiable cornerstones on which such well-functioning transport sectors must be built. When Uber entered the SA market as the first e-hailing company, it demonstrated the potential that technology offers to transform transport for the good of all citizens, and we continue to adapt, refine and enhance our technology-driven model to expand that positive effect.

We remain committed to working with the driver community, local and national government bodies and regulators to help build a sustainable public transport sector that maximises socioeconomic development, creates opportunities for the country and its citizens, and forms the backbone of sustainable SA cities for the future.

• Lits is GM of Uber Sub-Saharan Africa.

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