Most days, I love taxis as much as I love my Mum. If there’s one luxury that should be democratised, it’s the cab. Whether you’re world weary, knackered, drunk, or having to deal with a sudden emergency, there is nothing more civilised than pulling a heavy passenger door towards you and knowing that, for an established sum of money, someone else has to deal with you and your destination for the next few minutes. Cabs are romantic. If you’re a literary heroine running from peril, or a soap heroine running from Albert Square, taxis are around to get you there safely. But in real life, taxis have turned on us. Black cabs are less of an affordable luxury and more of a joint Christmas and birthday present. So when Uber, the affordable app-based taxi service, rolled up in London, it was as if all those Christmasses had come at once. If I wanted to get home safely, I just had to forgo a final round of drinks, and not say goodbye to paying rent that month.
I live in London, where I struggle to remember that the public transport is comparatively speaking, wonderful. But it’s not perfect, and when I can help it, I prefer not to use it after 10pm. It gets hot and loud and frightening. There are too many people putting their hand up your skirt or vomiting on your shoes. I’m privileged, in that I’m not forced to spend time in many places where I feel marginalised, vulnerable and scared. But I’ve been in enough situations on the tube and nightbuses which have made me think that I’d rather not go out at all.
Like many women I know, I shrinked my London to fit me better, gave myself a curfew and hurried home by nightfall because I might not be able to afford to get home safely if I got stuck. Black cabs are for emergencies. Sometimes you get lucky and meet a driver who looks you up and down and tells you “I have a daughter your age”, and you know that he will do his best to protect you from rapists and muggers as you jump out and get his cash from a dubious looking ATM. But more often than not, the driver doesn’t want to go south of the river, or whichever distant, barely urban zone you can only just afford to live in. If they do, it’s going to cost the better part of a day’s wages to get there.
Once you’re in, and the doors are shut, no one but you and the driver knows where you are, and only the driver really knows where you’re going. The spectre of John Worboys looms large. Last Christmas a friend jumped into a black cab, only to jump out again as soon as she leaned forward to tell the driver he wasn’t going in the right direction, and realised all the ads were out of date. It’s very easy to buy a decommissioned black cab and drive it around the city.
I’m infuriated by Transport for London’s ads warning against unregulated mini cabs, the ones that scream at you to get in a Hackney carriage. Unless they staple a bunch of pink notes to the bottom of the posters, they may as well instruct us to roll home on Fabergé eggs that have been strapped to our heels and elbows. In France last month, a student was attacked by cab drivers after trying to get into a rival Uber car, and she explained that as a student, she couldn’t afford to use the services of her attackers.
But it looks like my era of Uber is over. The company stand accused of a litany of less-than-honourable practices, such as planning to smear journalist Sarah Lacy, (who had been critical of the company), neglecting passenger safety, running a sexist campaign in France pairing passengers with “hot chick” drivers, and failing to thoroughly vet the people who work for the company.
It’s an indefensible list. It makes me feel sick with guilt about giving the company my money within the last 12 hours. As a feminist and supporter of women, I cannot, in all consciousness continue to use an organisation which treats women so appallingly. And I’m heartbroken, because I really, really, REALLY love Uber. But I have high hopes for the all women passenger and driver service She Rides, which just launched in New York.
Founder Stella Mateo created the company, transporting only women and employing only female drivers, when she found that in New York, over 60 per cent of passengers are female but 99 per cent of drivers are men. Mateo told CBS News: “I wanted to create a service that would empower women financially, and personally”. Earlier this month passenger Scott McLaughlin was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault after he held a female cab driver captive for over four hours. It makes sense that an all-woman cab service will make female drivers and passengers feel safer.
Predictably, some people are very upset about the exclusive nature of She Rides. Employment discrimination specialist Sam Estreicher of NYU commented: “In general, the rule of law is that just because customers want someone of a certain race or sex or national origin, you cannot exceed to those wishes, you are engaging in discrimination when you do that.” Three men in the Bronx are currently under investigation for the murder of two male livery drivers. Irrespective of gender, driving is a dangerous occupation. And traditionally, men are at greater risk of dying from work-related fatalities. All drivers and passengers deserve to be safe, regardless of gender. But other taxi apps need to demonstrate the same commitment to safety and quality as She Rides before we can talk about closing it down on a legal technicality. At least, someone needs to investigate the massive gender disparity among traditional taxi drivers first.
Uber and She Rides are not the only players in the marketplace. In the US, Lyft, Curb, Hailo and more are challenging the traditional taxi monopoly. So if we don’t feel safe and valued as customers and passengers by one company, we can move our money to an organisation where we do. If every woman I know stopped using Uber it might not end their presence in the greater London area, but they’d definitely feel the pinch. She Rides can make a killing if and when it arrives.
Ultimately, if all car services made greater efforts to regulate employees and clients, the need for a service like She Rides wouldn’t arise. But for the sake of woman everywhere, I can’t support Uber any more, now I know the way it treats its female customers. And for personal and entirely selfish reasons, I’d rather get taken home by a woman every time.