While regulators in several other countries continue to shun Uber and its peers, SA’s department of transport is taking a more accommodating approach — it is formalising the regulation of these e-hailing service providers.
Parliament is deliberating on the National Land Transport Amendment Bill, which includes provisions for app-based services such as Uber and Taxify for the first time. "The definition of metered taxi services has been expanded in the amendment bill to include electronic-hailing applications or similar technology," a spokesman for the department says.
Uber has not been so fortunate in other markets. London stripped it of its licence a few months ago, and Uber has been forced to retreat from some US cities, as well as from Bulgaria, Denmark and other countries. Its exit has often followed lobbying from metered-taxi groups, who argue that Uber does not play by the same rules they do.
Uber was also on relatively shaky ground in SA in the early days, following its launch in the country in 2013. For instance, Cape Town impounded hundreds of Uber-connected cars not long after the company’s entry into the city. But ongoing talks with cities, provinces and national regulators have given rise to a friendlier operating environment for the US-based company, despite hostility from drivers of metered taxis.
"We are hopeful that the bill will get passed in the course of this year," says Alon Lits, Uber GM for sub-Saharan Africa. Regulators in SA "see the net positive that Uber brings to cities", he says.
The company is extending an olive branch by making its data publicly available. Its real-time traffic data helps town planners, cities and provinces with their transport planning, Lits says.
Contrary to perceptions, Uber drivers are licensed and regulated in the same way as metered taxis, according to Lits. The new rules "won’t really change anything [in practice]", he says, as metered-taxi operating licences are already given to Uber drivers with the understanding that they will be using ride-hailing technology.
The regulations will formalise the arrangement and create a new category for e-hailing services.
Lits says the company has more than 13,000 "driver partners" in SA. They operate in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban and Port Elizabeth. To manage supply and demand following the peak festive season, prospective drivers have to join a waiting list.
While there are no plans to enter new cities, Lits says the company is keeping an eye on the likes of Bloemfontein, East London, Polokwane and Rustenburg. It may also introduce the service to smaller towns such as Knysna and Plettenberg Bay over busy periods.
Efforts to appease regulators have helped Uber grow its footprint in other parts of Africa too. In sub-Saharan Africa the company also operates in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and Tanzania. In total, it has nearly 30,000 drivers in the region, Lits says.
"We have over 1.8m active riders across the continent. More than 1m are in SA." And more than 500,000 South Africans had downloaded the company’s food delivery app, Uber Eats, at last count.
The industry is making progress in changing consumer habits, according to Lits, who says he hasn’t owned a car for four years and that some other Uber users are following suit.
About 25,000 South Africans use the app at least 10 times a week, which suggests that the same number of people have ditched cars in favour of ride sharing. "I think mind-sets are changing," Lits says. Making the shift is particularly "compelling" for people who usually travel less than 20km/day, he says.
Rider data also suggests that e-hailing apps may be reducing instances of drunken driving, Lits says. "Unfortunately, at this stage, we can’t show that with data. It’s tricky [to gauge] ... But what we do know is that our peak time in SA is 6pm on a Friday, which corresponds very much with when people are going out [to drink]."
High usage periods also coincide with specific events and certain week nights.
However, facts provided by Johannesburg metro police spokesman Wayne Minnaar underline the difficulty of showing a link between e-hailing services and drunk-driving statistics.
Minnaar says there has been a steady increase in arrests for drunken driving over the festive season in Joburg since 2012. He says this is probably due to a rise in the number of registered vehicles, an increase in the number of young drivers, more road blocks and a greater number of police officers in the city.
In the meantime safety issues remain a concern. These are largely related to dissent from metered-taxi drivers.
According to Fred Nel, the DA’s spokesman for roads & transport in Gauteng, there were 204 attacks in Pretoria, 86 in Johannesburg and four in Ekurhuleni arising from the violence that ensued between metered-taxi drivers and e- hailing taxi operators last year.
Lits says tensions have decreased. Uber has added security personnel in certain locations, linked drivers to emergency services through its app, introduced background checks on cash-paying riders, and allowed drivers’ loved ones to track their movements, he says.
"We’re also piloting a standalone panic-button app for driver partners, which will link to a control room."