Why Ubers Are Harder To Get & What This Means For Women’s Safety

Photo by Uriel Mont/Pexels
Ubers are harder to book than ever thanks to a lack of drivers, fuel shortage and increasing demand. And it’s making young women in the UK feel unsafe.
"A couple of weeks ago I tried to leave a party at 8pm. I'm currently pregnant and was so tired all of a sudden," says 34-year-old Rochelle* from London.
"I spent 30 minutes on the street trying to get home, with Ubers repeatedly cancelling on me, before giving up and going back for a couple of hours. I simply didn't feel safe waiting any longer."
Young women are often more likely to choose to travel with Uber, particularly after hours, thanks to the trackability and accessibility of the journeys. This need to feel safe is particularly prominent since the deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, on top of the dark winter hours and lingering anxiety about post-lockdown socialising.
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But thanks to the current minicab shortage, women are being left out in the cold.

What is causing the Uber shortage?

Several factors have led to the shortage of rides. Since lockdown ended earlier this year demand for ride-sharing apps has spiked, with CNBC reporting that Uber and Bolt are struggling to meet demand.
A spokesperson for Uber echoed this, telling Refinery29: "The number of drivers working on the app today is similar to before the pandemic, however huge growth in demand since the pandemic means that we need an additional 20,000 drivers to get service levels back to normal." They added: "We know people rely on Uber to book safe trips around the UK and we are working hard to sign up more drivers to meet increased demand." 
In contrast to the number of drivers needed, the number of licensed private hire vehicles in England fell by 15.9% between 2020 and 2021. The combined forces of the pandemic (which limited the amount of work available, meaning people sought work elsewhere) and Brexit (following which more than 200,000 EU citizens left the UK) have lessened the number of potential drivers.
For those who are still driving, trips are not as profitable as they once were, leading to a high number of cancellations. The Times links this in part to Uber introducing "upfront pricing" over estimated price ranges: "It is meant to be fairer than the previous system of an estimated price range, but drivers say they lose money if traffic is heavier than expected or if they must make a diversion. The price is revised upwards only if they have to drive at least 40 per cent further or for 20 per cent longer than calculated." 
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This can lead to drivers trying to find ways to make the trips financially worth their while.
Vanessa, who works in events in London, tells R29 that a driver recently pretended that the Blackwall Tunnel (which links Tower Hamlets in the east of the capital to Greenwich on the other side of the River Thames) was closed in order to lengthen a journey.
"I had been working at an event and called an Uber home, which normally costs about £13. It came up as £25 but as it was 1am and several had cancelled on me, I was shattered so I just booked it. He turned up and, after we were already on the road, said the Blackwall Tunnel was closed so it was going to be an hour and a half journey." Vanessa knew the journey should take under 15 minutes and that the tunnel wasn’t shut but the driver insisted otherwise, telling her to either "get out or do the hour and a half".
Given the choice of waiting alone on a dark street after 1am or sticking with the journey, Vanessa stayed in the car and insisted they go to the tunnel and see if the driver was right. "We get to the tunnel and it’s open. He doesn't apologise at all and stays silent. There was zero traffic and the journey was 14 minutes. I still was polite and said thank you as I got out and he said nothing."
"A while after I got the email saying my journey was £42…for a 14-minute journey. The driver had continued the fee for a while, driving about – I assume trying to get money out of me as his Blackwall Tunnel plan didn’t work."
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Vanessa says she understands that there aren’t enough drivers and that they need to make money. "But I wonder if they have daughters. Would they mind them either being confronted by drivers or left on the street at night?"
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Like many other ride-sharing apps, Uber uses a price algorithm which will automatically calculate surge pricing when there’s more demand. Given the rapid increase in demand, together with women’s understandable caution about travelling at night and the drivers’ need to make a journey financially worth it, the price of a standard ride has skyrocketed.
While the shortage is affecting everyone’s access to Ubers, women feel particularly vulnerable on the streets right now. And the increased expense that women must shoulder to feel safe is what Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK, calls the "Safety Tax".
"So many women, girls and marginalised people rely on minicabs because of an ever-present fear of attack on our streets, parks and public transport. However as we experience driver shortages, these groups who are statistically at much higher risk of sexual assault and harassment are left struggling to find a door-to-door route home, leaving them exposed to potentially dangerous encounters – especially during daylight savings. 
"This creates situations where women now feel the need to take even more precautionary measures – whether this means spending more time route-planning and having to travel longer distances in favour of better lighting and safer streets or leaving earlier than male colleagues, which will impact perceptions at work, or in some cases cancelling social and professional plans altogether. It creates a further disparity between the way genders are able to live their life and earn money to live – the 'Safety Tax', as we're calling it."
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these problems. The algorithm that increases prices when demand is higher needs to have human input so that customers aren’t paying to make up for driver shortages; drivers need to be paid better so that they don’t feel they have to take advantage of customers to make a drive profitable; and on a more fundamental level, far more needs to be done so that women and girls can travel safely and without fear.
As Claire puts it: "COVID restrictions have proven that mass, public behavioural change is possible to achieve, incredibly quickly, when we prioritise public health issues – of which violence against women is one. I think we have had such a strong moment to redefine the way that we return to and use public spaces post-lockdown. This will involve education, behavioural change and using technology in a smarter way. However, if we’re going to get this return right, we need the people most affected by violence in public spaces to be at the centre of designing the solutions."

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