Over 30 Uber cars impounded in Cape Town

Johannesburg - Passengers travelling with internet ride-sharing service Uber in Cape Town risk being stranded as police clamp down on the service.

Traffic police have impounded 34 Uber vehicles since Saturday because the service’s drivers don’t have the right permits to operate in the Western Cape, according to the City of Cape Town manager for safety and security Richard Bosman. Uber have confirmed to Fin24 that over 30 vehicles related to the ride-sharing service have been impounded.

An Uber spokesperson couldn’t reveal its total number of cars in Cape Town, but the company said it is “partnering with hundreds of drivers and completing thousands of trips daily”.

Transport officials in Cape Town are implementing regulation that requires all taxi drivers to conform to regulations in the Western Cape. These rules ask drivers to provide the likes of business plans, their fleet information and a needs assessment.

Meanwhile, drivers of the impounded Uber cars have to pay fines of R1 500 while they also have to fork out a R7 500 vehicle release fee, Bosman said.

Bosman told Fin24 that traffic police impounded 11 cars on Saturday, 22 on Sunday and one vehicle on Monday.

None of the drivers, though, have been arrested.

“They don't have a valid permit to operate,” Bosman told Fin24.

"On all of the occasions, none of the drivers were in possession of an operating licence or permit. They were charged and the vehicles impounded.

“Those permits are issued at a provincial level by the provincial government. They need to apply to the operating licensing board and of course they go through the whole process of assessing whether there is a need or not for the service and what the current demand is and that sort of stuff.

"The city doesn't deal with those applications. They're issued by the provincial government... .The city deals more with the enforcement environment. So, there is a separation between the two. We don't deal with applications; we just deal with the enforcement side of things,” Bosman said.

Uber responds

Alon Lits, who is a general manager for Uber in Johannesburg, told Fin24 that the ride-sharing internet company has been in talks with the City of Cape Town for months over what kind of category licence or permit its service fits into exactly.

Uber differs from other taxi companies as it does not employ the drivers or the owners of the cars. Instead, Uber partners with car owners and drivers and the company takes a share of the fares.

Uber is also different from other taxi companies in terms of how payments are made. The Uber app automatically calculates how far a passenger has travelled and deducts the amount off the passenger’s credit card. Therefore, no cash is exchanged between driver and passenger.

Regulation affecting Uber even differs among South African cities.

“The regulators in Joburg feel Uber fits in with chartered services operating licence category. So a completely different sub-category to what Cape Town feels and the requirements for a chartered services operating licence are a lot less onerous than the metered taxi requirements are,” Lits told Fin24.

Regarding the Cape Town metered taxi licence requirement, Lits told Fin24 that other taxi companies have greater resources when it comes to applying for these permits and that these companies apply on behalf of their employed drivers.

But because Uber operates on a decentralised model, the onus is more on the owners of the cars and the drivers to fulfill these requirements.

"Regulation is really lagging innovation in this case,” Lits told Fin24.

“And there's a lot of ambiguity around what the right type of category of operating licence should be for Uber partners (in Cape Town).

"And this a bottleneck and an issue which we identified early last year. We identified it and we engaged the City of Cape Town and we've spoken to the city about this issue and they're very aware of the challenges that we've been having in the process,” Lits said.

Lits further told Fin24 that a deadline on a moratorium for Uber to have the correct permits in Cape Town was pushed out to December. But he said it seems that the City of Cape Town is insistent on Uber drivers complying with existing metered taxi rules.

He also said Uber is now trying to comply with the city’s regulation.

Bureaucracy

To fix its Cape Town woes, Bosman said Uber needs to comply with the city’s taxi rules.

"They've got to go through the operating licensing board, make an application and follow the due process... that's what they've got to do," Bosman told Fin24.

Yet Lits explained to Fin24 that challenges exist regarding complying to these rules.

The first stage of applying for the necessary permits involves involves Uber drivers receiving feedback on their business case.

Lits told Fin24 that Uber has helped its driver-owner pairs with this process and has been told by transport officials that it takes seven to 14 days to receive feedback.

Uber initiated this process in early December 2014 but claims transport officials are slow to respond.  

"They (the Uber drivers) put forward a business case but they still haven't received feedback on it,” Lits told Fin24.

Despite these challenges in Cape Town, Lits said "as far as we are concerned it's definitely business as usual”. He also said that Uber is continuing to engage with the city.

Passengers will be refunded if they are stranded as a result of Uber cars being impounded, Lits said.

Fake Uber drivers?

The Cape Times reported on Monday that police impounded the Uber vehicles over the weekend because the service’s drivers may have illegally exchanged positions with their friends.

“Uber makes the claim that all the people who are registered with them. They say that all the people that are registered with them are professional registered and everything, but that is not our experience,” Bosman told Fin24.

"The guy can be registered with Uber. Yes, he can be registered, but that doesn't mean that's the guy that's going to come and pick you up,” Bosman said.

But Lits has denied this allegation .Uber passengers are presented with photos and phone numbers of their drivers on the service's mobile app to help with identification.

“That accusation again is completely false. Every driver that is on the platform and has been put through the platform has been vetted and screened by our team," Lits told Fin24.

Uber, though, requires its drivers to log in to driver's app with a username and password, which does risk drivers sharing these details with their friends. The company, though, does have plans to curb this risk by possibly introducing an extra biometric log in requirement for drivers.

In the meantime, Uber's screening process includes ensuring drivers don’t have a criminal history, that they have a safe driving record and that they have been driving for at least three years.

Lits told Fin24 that the Cape Town cars in particular were impounded because the drivers are operating without permits that the city requires.

Fin24 asked Bosman if any of the drivers of these cars were penalised for letting their friends drive the Uber vehicles, but he couldn’t provide specific instances and cases at the time of writing. Bosman added that two of the charged Uber drivers paid their fines on Monday.

"And by paying the fine, they've admitted that they weren't operating properly,” Bosman told Fin24.

‘Get out of the vehicle’

One Uber passenger, who was left stranded after police pulled over the car, posted a message on Uber South Africa's Facebook page regarding his experience.

UPDATE: Fin24 has removed the name of the Uber passenger which was previously referred to in this story. 


A screenshot taken on Sunday, January 4, 2015. (Facebook)

Bosman told Fin24 that Cape Town traffic police must ask stranded Uber passengers to phone other taxi companies or ask friends or family to pick them up. Alternatively, there have been occasions where traffic police have driven stranded passengers home, Bosman said.

Global pressure

It's not only Cape Town where Uber is dogged with regulatory problems and even public relations issues.

Uber is banned in Thailand, the city of Madrid in Spain and Seoul in South Korea for not complying with local taxi regulations. The service is also facing regulatory scrutiny in Singapore, The Netherlands, Indonesia, Vietnam and Canadian city Toronto.

The service is further banned in New Delhi in India where an Uber driver allegedly raped a passenger. In December, an Uber driver was also charged with rape in the US city of Boston.

Are you an Uber passenger who has been stranded after being stopped by Cape Town police? Tell us what happened by clicking here.

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