Prolonged agony? Uber drivers, riders suffer as app limps on

Since Grab’s acquisition of Uber’s regional operations was announced on March 26, thousands of Uber drivers have crossed over to the rival platform.— Reuters pic
Since Grab’s acquisition of Uber’s regional operations was announced on March 26, thousands of Uber drivers have crossed over to the rival platform.— Reuters pic

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SINGAPORE, April 20 — With the Uber app ordered to continue running for several more weeks amid the Singapore authorities’ review of the Grab-Uber deal, Uber drivers say they now have to travel as much as four times the distance between trips — more than 10km, in some cases.

Since Grab’s acquisition of Uber’s regional operations was announced on March 26, thousands of Uber drivers have crossed over to the rival platform.

As a result, commuters, too, are lamenting longer waits of up to 15 minutes for their drivers to arrive. Some end up cancelling their bookings, to the chagrin of some drivers who say they are seeing more cancellations these days.

Last week, Singapore’s competition watchdog ordered Uber’s platform to run until May 7 with the necessary customer support to handle contractual and payment issues, as part of a slew of interim measures amid an investigation into Grab’s takeover. This was to “allow a smoother transition time for riders and drivers”, the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) had said.

One Uber driver, who gave his name as Hamdan, said he had three passengers cancel on him in a single morning on Wednesday (April 18) owing to the long wait — something he experienced for the first time.

The 52-year-old added that last week, he was given a booking 11km away. Previously, he never had to go further than 5km to reach a rider. “It took me more than 15 minutes to get to the passenger, whose ride of 3km was shorter than that,” he said, blaming this on the dwindling number of drivers on the platform. “The situation is now ridiculous for both drivers and riders.”

Fellow Uber driver Chris Koh, 51, said he was driving in Ang Mo Kio last week when he received a booking at Chinatown Point mall on New Bridge Road. This was about 12km away, at least four times the typical distance he used to travel.

The rider’s destination was about 2km from Chinatown Point and the trip was all of seven minutes — half the time he took to reach the rider. “The (bookings) are very far away, so you can tell that not many drivers are left,” said Koh.

Hamzah Mohammed, 56, said the app is currently but an “empty shell”, and he is running a deficit.

More time on the road means higher fuel costs for drivers, who also said their falling incomes have been compounded by the fact that they no longer receive incentives. Previously, these could range between S$150 and S$500 (between RM444 and RM1,482) a week if they completed a certain number of trips. Some drivers said their earnings have tumbled by more than half.

Hamzah said he used to earn about S$1,500 a week with incentives. Following the announcement of the deal, he is earning between S$700 and S$900 weekly and is struggling to cover his expenses which include the costs of rental, fuel and a car wash. “The more I drive, the more I’ll lose money,” he said.

Earlier this month, Kwan Kar Wai, 51, was at Marina Square mall when he received a booking at Yio Chu Kang about 20 to 25 minutes away.

“If you are the rider, do you think you will wait for me or will you cancel?... If I’m on my way to pick you up and yet you cancel, it’s wasting my time,” said Kwan. The Uber driver said at least three in 10 trips see him travel 15 to 25 minutes to reach a rider.

TODAY had also reported about traditional taxi operators — which had suffered an exodus of drivers to ride-hailing firms — now seeing a jump in the number of Uber drivers seeking to join or return to them.

Those hoping to return their vehicles to Lion City Rentals (LCR) — Uber’s vehicle-rental subsidiary in Singapore — have their hands tied. They are under six-month or one-year contracts which impose a penalty for premature termination. While LCR allows them to switch to Grab following the acquisition, some Uber drivers had earlier told TODAY they do not want to join Grab for various reasons. These include the perception that they may be penalised for slight infractions, and it will be difficult for them to claim fares owed to them should payment disputes arise with Grab.

Meanwhile, commuters are also getting the short end of the stick.

Zac Chua, 27, takes Grab or Uber at least four to six times daily. The business owner said he has had to wait 10 minutes on average for an Uber vehicle since last week, three times longer than before.

Another user Kelvin Ong, 27, said his longest wait was between 12 and 15 minutes, up from three to five minutes last year. “Drivers were complaining that the next pick-up was around eight to 10 minutes and passengers tend to cancel Thus they were also reluctant to pick up,” said the procurement general manager.

Equities analyst Zachary Ong, 28, said he has had to wait more than eight minutes, instead of three to four minutes previously, for an Uber car. “The time to match drivers and passengers has also increased,” he said.

Ang Hin Kee, executive adviser to the National Private Hire Vehicles Association, said the problems stemmed from the “mess” created by Uber’s senior management in Singapore who failed to deal with the concerns and interests of drivers, riders and regulators.

“Before you exit deliver on your promises and look after your stakeholders including staff and partners well. That’s fairly basic,” said Ang, who is also a Member of Parliament for the Ang Mo Kio group representation constituency.

“Though the option to go to Grab exists, I think there are some who fell through the gap (and this) should have been anticipated by Uber.”

Unintended effects or not

While the effects were “unintended”, Associate Professor Lawrence Loh of the National University of Singapore Business School said the interim period has been less than desirable for Uber users, and prolonging Uber’s app was “quite suboptimal”.

“This again points to the decision-making mechanism. Although we want to have due process, sometimes due process is irrelevant if the market completely overtakes you,” said Assoc Prof Loh, director of the school’s Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations.

“Whatever measures you take are not going to be very useful anymore. In fact, it might just lengthen the agony,” he said, urging against further delays to the app’s shutdown.

Assoc Prof Loh said Uber’s exit was already “foregone”, and efforts should be devoted to helping businesses in the market serve drivers and commuters better, and setting the conditions so that potential competitors, such as Indonesia’s Go-Jek, can enter the market.

Following the announcement of Uber’s sale to Grab, news emerged that Go-Jek and homegrown carpooling service Ryde were planning to enter the market here.

Nevertheless, transport economist Walter Theseira said the continuation of the app was to allow a “more orderly exit for drivers who for whatever reason don’t want to switch (to Grab), cannot switch, or are uncertain about what they should be doing.”

For instance, it gives Uber drivers planning to leave the industry the chance to continue earning an income. “The declining usefulness of the Uber app is exactly as intended, giving the signal to drivers that basically, ‘you need to come to some acceptance of what it is that you want to do’,” said Dr Theseira, who is with the Singapore University of Social Sciences. “If the alternative is turning it off immediately, it’s unclear why that is actually better.”

When contacted, a CCCS spokesperson reiterated that the extension of Uber’s app was “not meant to make Uber operate permanently in Singapore”.

Rather, it was “to give more transition time for riders and drivers to decide on their course of actions”, the spokesperson stressed. “During this period, riders and drivers are free to use whichever ride-hailing platform which serves their needs best.”

On whether drivers are allowed to return their vehicles early to LCR, the CCCS spokesperson said this was a “commercial decision that is within LCR’s control”.

“We hope that LCR would take into account how Uber and Grab’s business decisions have changed the circumstances for their drivers, and take reasonable steps to address their concerns,” the spokesperson added. — TODAY

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