When Uber arrived in Dhaka in November last year, they promised safe, reliable and affordable rides.But is that what consumers are getting? Here is what happened to me. I have used Uber in New York and London, so I was fairly excited to try Uber in Bangladesh. My experience abroad has been great. Turns out, not all things translate as well into local culture. My first Uber trip never happened. I requested a driver and noted that he was on Mirpur Road and I had a 20-minute wait time. Fifteen minutes later, the app said I had 17 more minutes to wait. Surprised, I called my driver who then proceeded to snap: “Why are you waiting then? Just cancel it.” He hung up on me. When I cancelled, the app notified me that since I was cancelling a ride after the five-minute mark, I would be charged a fee. I have since trolled the Dhaka, Bangladesh part of Uber’s website. I clicked on the “Help” tab, then on “More” under “A Guide to Uber”, which took me to another list from which I selected “Cancelling an Uber ride.” It was a tedious process that led me to find this: “Please note that a cancellation fee may apply.” Not exactly the help I was hoping for. My second Uber trip was uncomfortable. Initially, I had to stand out on the street for twenty minutes while my driver tried to figure out how to use the navigator to get to me, though I was two streets away. Luckily, this happened during the daytime. As soon as I got in the car, my loquacious driver started trying to get to know me. I gave him curt answers, hoping to stem the flow of conversation, but failed to deter him. When he moved into personal territory, however, things got awkward. I told him I would rather not have a conversation, but he went on asking whether I was married or if I had children and where I lived. Luckily the ride ended before he crossed over into harassment. His parting statement: “I called you from my personal phone earlier. Feel free to call me any time you need a car. You do not need to go through the app.”
In case of emergencies, though Uber claims that it has 'specially-trained incident response teams available around the clock to handle any urgent safety concerns that arise,' the fact is, there is no way to reach them immediately or even receive instant feedbackMy third Uber trip was uneventful, until the trip ended. When my driver completed the trip on his end, my registered credit card was charged directly by Uber. My driver warned me against this, saying that credit cards were charged dollar amounts and it would be cheaper to pay in cash. The logic of this escaped me, until I realised what it would mean for the driver if I paid in cash: he could ask for a tip or demand that I pay TK10 or 20 over the base fare. Here is what Uber’s website says: “Uber is not a transportation provider. No need to tip. Flat rates apply to direct trips between specified locations. Additional stops may result in higher fare. Applicable tolls and surcharge may be added to your fare. At times of intense demand, our rates change over time to keep vehicles available.” Discourteous drivers Others have taken to social media to express their discomfort with Uber and its “driver partners.” Speaking to various posters solidified the idea that Uber is struggling to live up to its promises. Faruq Hasan, political adviser to the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka, has generally had good experiences with Uber. However, he did have this to say: “The drivers can be problematic. They sometimes try to fleece you. They try sneaking in an extra charge or refuse to go short distances.” “Overall, I’m mostly satisfied with them.” According to Uber, “driver partners go through a mandatory soft skill training that enables them to offer riders a great experience.” When questioning one of my Uber drivers, I was told that Uber provides them with two or three hours of training on how to use the navigation system. Navigation nightmare Regardless, Limana Solaiman, a staff reporter for The Independent, has had a hard time with the service. “Recently a few Uber drivers have cancelled on me. I gave my location and one snapped saying he does not know how to read the map. One told me that they cannot view the location until they accept the trip and asked me to cancel when I told him where I am and where I want to go. I complained to Uber and they sent a reply saying they will look into it,” she said. Saqeb Mahbub, a lawyer, had a similar experience: “The drivers cannot read maps to save their lives. One guy asked me where I was. When I said I was in Dhanmondi, he asked me where that was.” “I had to have six conversations with him to direct him to my house. I complained to Uber and they said their drivers are ‘slowly coping with modern tech.’” Rehana Ahmed, a restaurant owner, says she is not as tech-savvy as “kids these days.” Yet even she has spotted a few problems with the Uber app. “The navigation doesn’t work well. I have had situations where I see the driver at a certain spot on the app GPS, but when he does not make it to my location on time and I call, he tells me he is in an entirely different location. I understand there is a lot of traffic and the wait time can fluctuate, but if the location is wrong, the wait time shown will naturally be incorrect as well,” she said. Can’t complain Like Saqeb, Limana also complained to Uber, through the complicated in-app process. “I complained through the app. So you click on ‘Your trips’, then you select a trip, then you choose one of the topics listed, then you get another list of topics and you select one from there and finally you get a box where you write in your complaint,” she said. For her efforts, Uber credited Tk460 or so to her account for the trip she complained about. “My five-year-old son is asthmatic and I called Uber because I wanted to avoid using a CNG. We were going home to Eskaton from a friend’s place in Banani and it was around 6:30pm. I paid about Tk460 and the AC was not working and my son had a really hard time of it,” Limana explained. “I once paid Tk45 for the same trip, but it was a Friday morning. I think Uber is cheaper than using Toma taxi or any other taxi service, but then, Uber drivers sometimes ask for tips.” [caption id="attachment_53472" align="aligncenter" width="882"] PHOTO: Rajib Dhar[/caption] Coercive charges Many riders have complained about being overcharged, asked for tips, ghost-charged or short-changed. Saqeb recalled: “Once, the fare was Tk370 and I gave my driver Tk400. When he was looking through his wallet, I saw that he had lots of change, but he told me he did not. I let it go that time, but it happened to me another time as well. The second time, the driver flat out said he did not have change. It might have been true, but he did not even look. This could potentially be a trend.” Rehana, too, has complaints regarding the drivers, claiming they have been rude with her on several occasions and a few have even hung up on her. “The worst of it is the overcharging. They have even charged me for the time it took them to get to me once,” she said. Unlike the others, Rehana has been unable to complain to Uber, because she could not figure out how. For older or less tech-savvy users, the app seems to be very user unfriendly. Substandard security “I am nervous using this system anyway, because I do not know how secure it will be,” Rehana added, bringing to light yet another fear that many riders, especially female ones, share. Nishadul Haque Nihal, a local telecom employee by day and a blogger by leisure, went beyond simply complaining to Uber about their many issues. He wrote a thorough list titled “5 Issues Uber Dhaka Needs to Fix Immediately” on Techetron. In his piece, Nihal has hit upon some of the main concerns for riders: Uber’s lack of customer service channels, its “unprofessional” drivers, the ghost-charging, faulty GPS and how “extremely expensive” it is. “What works in the US might not be adequate enough to serve customers in the emerging markets,” writes Nihal, highlighting Uber’s biggest obstacle here: Bangladesh’s road and transportation culture. He has also used Pathao, a local Uber-like service that uses motorbikes, and was able to compare the two. “My experience with Pathao was very good, until recently. But they are trying to manage these issues. They are constantly taking feedback from users. They instantly respond to personal complaints on Facebook. They have a beta group for early adopters. None of which Uber had or has. And to add to that, I’ve faced more problems with Uber than Pathao,” he explained.
In a country where drivers rarely even know road traffic laws, let alone follow them, saying 'Uber provides an incredible opportunity to improve safety of rider and drivers in new and innovative ways,' is rather a large, and thus far unsubstantiated, claim“Even when you complain to Uber, they reply a day later.” Though not directly speaking of how potentially unsafe Uber can be for riders, especially for females, Nihal has identified a major problem with the system: “The fact that Uber has no call centre or even a live chat customer service channel in Bangladesh is very alarming for the customers.” In case of emergencies, though Uber claims that it has “specially-trained incident response teams available around the clock to handle any urgent safety concerns that arise,” the fact is, there is no way to reach them immediately or even receive instant feedback. Uber answers Collating the riders’ various issues, the Dhaka Tribune reached out to Uber with a few questions. According to an Uber spokesperson, there is a “stringent” process in place when on-boarding driver partners. They require valid documents from the drivers themselves and once drivers are shortlisted, they “conduct a mandatory soft skill training that enables them to offer riders a great experience.” This soft skill training potentially refers to the previously mentioned two or three hours of training on how to use the GPS. But the question remains, at which point does Uber provide these drivers with basic defensive driving training to ensure riders’ safety? In a country where drivers rarely even know road traffic laws, let alone follow them, saying “Uber provides an incredible opportunity to improve safety of rider and drivers in new and innovative ways,” is rather a large, and thus far unsubstantiated, claim. Addressing the drivers’ behaviours, the Uber spokesperson said: “We have a zero tolerance policy towards any abusive behaviour on our platform.” This is directed toward both drivers and riders. The repercussions, however, remain unclear. In terms of ensuring rider safety, Uber believes that their driver verification, in addition to the fact that riders are able to use the app GPS to know where they are and if they are on the correct route, is enough. It has also apparently added a “Share my journey” option via which “riders can easily share their ride details, including the specific route and estimated time of arrival, with friends or family for extra peace of mind.” Uber fares are calculated using an algorithm which helps ensure there is no human error. “Riders are charged either a minimum fare or a fare based on the time and distance for the trip’s route, including a base fare, booking fee, surcharges and tolls,” says the Uber spokesperson. “Having said that, in case of isolated incidents, if there is any confusion around fares, we encourage riders to use in-app support to report the issue, so we can help resolve it immediately. We make sure that we process refunds without any delay, strict action is taken against the driver partner and at the same time the feedback is recorded for future reference.” Uphill battle for Uber What their responses suggest is that Uber may have bitten off more than it can chew with Bangladesh. While Uber claims that “together we’re energizing the local economy, helping make streets safer from drunk driving, and fostering a less congested environment,” the reality is slightly different. What Uber has done thus far is introduce a side business idea to most of their driver partners, who may not remain partners for very long. It has also potentially made the traffic situation worse, rather than better, since the more people sign up (or rather have their personal drivers sign up) as driver partners, the more likely the number of cars out on the streets is bound to increase. Uber has beaten the odds and launched in Dhaka and there are quite a few people who are pleased with their service and their frequent discounts. But problems with rude drivers, faulty navigation, overcharging, ghost-charging, poor security measures and minimal customer service means it has a lot of kinks to smooth out.