The Concerns about UBER in Dhaka
Md. Rizwanul Islam writes for DOT
In a city like Dhaka where the quality public transport service at an affordable cost has always remained elusive, the introduction of the ride-sharing services like Uber has been welcomed by most commuters. The political and economic muscle of the private bus owners has never allowed Bangladesh Road Transport Commission (BRTC) to have its desired level impact in the transort sector. Railway network for servicing the commuters of Dhaka is virtually non-existent. The water transport network projects have miserably failed to have any measurable impact. The taxi service is so rare that it may be fair to say that the commuters would get them only once in a blue moon. The CNG-run taxis run on their will and at the price deemed acceptable to the drivers. Thus, there has been a hope of many commuters that Uber-like app-driven services would give them a much-needed relief. However, this write-up would raise some malaises which, if remain unaddressed, would not yield the full potential of these services. While this write-up is limited to Uber, it is not to imply that other app-based ride-sharing services operating in Dhaka have no similar malaise, the choice of Uber is just driven by this writer’s personal experience with Uber and nothing else.
The biggest concern that this writer has about Uber is its so-called demand-supply driven fare mechanism. At every possible opportunity of extracting from the riders – be that a little rain, some events in a particular area where a substantial number of people have gathered, less number of public transport in the city, etc. – the fare charged by Uber gets substantially higher than its regular one. While as a believer in the market economy (though not in the utopian fully unregulated market economy), this writer generally has no grudge about the demand-supply driven model of the price of goods and services; like many others, he has severe objections to opportunistic profiting at the suffering of others. Even in the USA, when after Hurricane Charley in 2004, many consumers were being charged exorbitantly for some services such as hotel accommodation, plumbing etc.; most people complained so much so that many successfully sued under the law against price gouging. In other words, while most of us may accept people profiting because of their innovation or risk-taking, perhaps few (except orthodox believers in a totally free market economy) would take the idea that it is fair to excessively benefit from people’s sufferings. The market extremists may argue that the ride-sharing companies are not forcing people to take their service, but based on the public transport scenario in Dhaka, the validity of that contention is probably unconvincing. While the pricing of Uber may not be excessive, its substantial increase in fare in relatively routine events is a cause of concern. Indeed, this type of opportunism has been a common cause of anger about the CNG-driven taxis in Dhaka and now the same is being replicated by Uber, though in the name of the supply-demand algorithm. This issue should be looked into by the regulators, Uber administration, and the consumer rights associations like Consumer Association of Bangladesh. Otherwise, leaving everything to be controlled by the invisible hands of the market is sometimes a recipe for the oppression of consumers.
The problem of the commuters is not limited to the opportunistic pricing by the Uber; they also suffer woes from the unprofessionalism of some drivers. While the drivers are expected to go to all destinations within the covered network, they would too often press the riders about their destinations and would not only decline to go to some destinations but also often press the rider to cancel as if it is the rider’s fault that the driver would not go to the requested destination. The bonus system which rewards the drivers for completing a required number of rides is being sought to be manipulated by some desperate drivers. Even a driver once tried to cajole this writer that after completing the trip, he just requests a new trip so that he can go back to his home but at the same time can fulfil his target number of trips to make him eligible for the bonus. The experience of requesting a rider to wait until the driver refuels the vehicle is also quite common. The request to a rider to finish a trip before the vehicle reaches its destination, though uncommon, is not unheard. And most shockingly, Uber’s customer service in this country is so inadequate that while riders can only report problems, they do not receive feedback on the complaint lodged by them which is unacceptable by the contemporary standard of customer care.
What about the commuters? Well, sadly, the commuters also often put across their share of misbehaviour. The reliability of the service of Uber depends on the reliability of the information shared both by the riders and the drivers. Many riders would often keep the driver waiting for too long although, the riders are expected to confirm that they are ready to be picked up at their requested location. And some commuters would at times behave so rudely that as if by riding the vehicle, they have become the owners of the vehicle or expert commentators on the quality of vehicles. Perhaps even worse, the behaviour of many riders would depend on whether the driver is the owner of the vehicle or just a driver, which is a common culture of behaving with people depending on their economic and social culture in this country, where egalitarianism is a far cry.
* Dr IslamThe Writer is is an Associate Professor at Department of Law, North South University.