PHILADELPHIA // “Dude, you took a regular cab? That’s gross.” Mark, a Californian documentary filmmaker, was clearly stunned at the news when I met him at our hotel in downtown Philly. To be fair, he had a point. Most of the “regular” US taxis I’ve taken in the past year have minimal legroom, no shock absorbers, drivers that often don’t speak English and upholstery that, on hot and sticky days, will work its way into the very fabric of your being. No surprise then that many metropolitan Americans are using Uber, the US$62.5 billion app-based global taxi company to give them a ride that’s … well … not “gross”.
Metropolitan Lebanese are doing the same. Faced with either the traditional “service” taxis, most of which are quite literally held together with masking tape, or the many private, but not entirely transparent, taxi firms, Uber has filled a gap in the market, especially for women, for whom the global brand inspires confidence.
I must confess that I never thought Uber would catch on in Lebanon. For a start, the Lebanese drive everywhere, which is easy to do, even in a congested city like Beirut, particularly if you have a driver or a trusted cabbie who is always on call. But Uber has apparently made its mark: “I love [Uber],” said my friend Maya. “I never took cabs off the street because I was uncomfortable. I drove everywhere. Now, especially in traffic or where there are no parking spots, I use Uber.” Carole was even more effusive: “[Uber] has changed my life.” Mona summed it up: “To my mind they are the best.” Phew.
“Uber Lebanon was set up in August 2014,” explained company spokesman Shaden Abdellatif. “As a technology company, we operate by partnering with licensed transport providers. We don’t employ drivers or own a fleet. Instead, they use our technology for greater economic opportunity, on their own time.”
Mr Abdellatif said that Uber Lebanon had “hundreds of drivers on its “platform” and as long as their cars meets Uber standards they could decide how often they wanted “to turn on the Uber app for business”.
Meeting “Uber standards” means having a driver licence, a car registered in their name, insurance, and a clean record, before the owner sits for the Uber “training”, which presumably means learning the brand’s service manual.
Mr Abdellatif was also keen to stress that the technology Uber has brought to the market allows passengers or “riders”, as Uber calls its customers, to share feedback “to maintain quality”. They can also share the details of their journey with family and friends and access the driver’s name, photo and car registration before getting into the car.
All this is clearly good news for the many Lebanese who are more than happy to earn a bit on the side, but it also means that other taxi companies have had to raise their own bar of excellence. The Charlie Group, which owns the ubiquitous, Charlie Taxi, last year announced a $3 million expansion programme, which will include the introduction of long overdue, metered cabs in Beirut – charging $1 per kilometre.
Meanwhile, Uber has committed to investing $250m in the Middle East and North Africa, where it has a presence in nine countries and 15 cities with 395,000 “active riders” and where it wants to “create jobs and promote entrepreneurship”.
In Saudi Arabia, which bans female drivers, Uber has given women greater mobility, a fact the company says overrides any misgivings it may have about having a presence in a country with such a divisive law. Another reason why Uber loves Saudi Arabia may just be that last week it announced that the company had raised $3.5bn from the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, which seeks to eventually reduce the country’s reliance on oil.
At the bottom of my street there was a man with huge sideburns who drove a pristine ’70s Mercedes emblazoned with the legend “Elvis Taxi”. I hope he has joined Uber and I also hope he has kept the sideburns.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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