UBER A POLICY OPPORTUNITY OR A COMPETITIVE THREAT: SOUTH AFRICA

At the heart of any transportation system is access and travel time. What is an axiom now is that the need for travel is derived from the need to access, execute and or participate in an activity. Places of leisure, culture and work are located in places close or far from the average family who resides in a township, suburb, city or self-informed settlement. Minimising travel time and maximising access are critical concerns in thinking about mobility and access in the travel management context. Uber’s transit services have revealed a policy caveat in many countries’ access and mobility thinking and practices. In this article I want to highlight what Uber does that’s different and articulate some of the most important opportunities the South African travel economy cannot afford to miss. Before we can truly reveal where Uber services fit, we need to establish the existing evidence.

Travelers connect different activities in one day’s worth of travel. The distinction between a trip, a journey and a tour is important in this regard. Imagine a traveler walks from home to the bus stop, travels by bus to the city, in the city she walks from the bus stop to her work location — she does the same to get back home. The chain of trips to work (i.e. walk-bus-walk), make up a journey (i.e. home-work). A tour is her trip from home to work and back. Each of these can be done by one mode or more. Transport researchers suggest that (a) travelers tend to use complex modes to make simple journeys; and (b) travelers use simple modes to make complex journeys.


A transport mode is complex when its services involve temporal (time based) lapses towards and between the systems of journeys. Public transport, for example involves a number of temporal lapses. For instance, the time it takes to get to the taxi rank; waiting before departure; travel and transfer time. The private car is an example of a simple mode, as there are few time lapses (excluding congestion). For instance, a family of four with one car would depart directly from home and drop children at school and launch to different work locations in one mode. What makes the trip so complex is the fact that with one mode a number of locations are accessed throughout the journey to school/work. What makes Uber so special?

Uber targets a special market in the travel economy by simplifying the journey through information technology — and competitively pricing the inherent convenience where (i.e. CBD) and when (i.e. late nights) the market is willing to pay for it. A traveler can travel directly from home to work without the need to drive and without the time lapses between a chain of trips. Waiting to depart, after requesting the service and this is a time lapse, but the waiting is accompanied by real time knowledge of the travel service en-route, how long it will take, and the pre-selected pick-up location.

Like buses, the departure and travel time is “published”, like minibus taxis the travel time may be short, and like metered taxis a specific pick-up location can be requested. What is different is that the traveler has full, real-time knowledge, comfortable and secure service with almost the exact same convenience as the private car — but this time you don’t have to drive. This is accompanied with pre-boarding information, such as the exact cost of trip, the contact details of the driver, and an easy to use payment system integrated in the service. Uber services are not immune to safety and harassment issues in travel services.

Many countries struggle to crack the Uber service code because it’s customer responsive. It is perhaps best described as; personal transit offering demand responsive services integrated with a service and payment processes that are secure and seamless. Public transport visions clearly aim for this type of service level offering. What’s the problem?

The Uber business model may have revealed that policy makers thought that an integrated transit service offering high access, mobility and real-time responsiveness was only possible in an ideal world. As travel service business models evolve, the dynamic provisions for innovative travel systems that have yet to emerge. From bike-sharing to online lift services, the integration of intelligent transport systems, and big data systems monitoring travel services. These are symptoms of the rapid change in technology, an innovative culture that is evidence based.

The current focus on redressing historical and current segregationist spatial configurations through public transport, whilst negating the opportunity to innovate collectively and interdependently is an unnecessary cost operator and travelers will bear. If it’s not government vs operators through top-down policy making or pseudo-stakeholder-engagement, it’s operator’s vs government through violent, erratic reactions to government actions. Basic economics suggests that a change in technology in the travel market, such as Uber, transforms the supply of travel services. For existing operators to compete, they need technological fittings that add value to them and their customers. To do this transport policy makers must acknowledge the collective nature of travel management, absorb a new generation of tech-savvy, rapid thinking millennials, and innovatively advance the un-monitored travel systems within the political and historical context of public transport services in South Africa. This is in the face of increasing congestion, and the need to prioritise public transport and non-motorised transport as catalysts for urban-rural development.

Ofentse is a Junior Lecturer in the Department of Transport Economics and Logistics Management, at the North-West University, his views are his own.

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