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Monday 20 August 2018
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Axing the taxi

MARK LYNDERSAY

LAST WEEK, Uber, the popular ride-sharing service, abruptly ended its operations in Trinidad and Tobago.

The company sent a statement to its customer base, stating in part: “This decision was not made lightly, but at this time, we believe that there is a lack of a proper environment for innovation and technology to thrive in Trinidad and Tobago.”

The Ministry of Works and Transport immediately responded, reiterating its position on the company’s operations.

The statement noted that the Ministry of Works and Transport and the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs have had apparently unsuccessful meetings with the company regarding what it described as the “realigning of its operations in conformity with the country’s laws.”

“Firstly, Uber was required to fully disclose the particulars of its insurance coverage certification for passengers and drivers. Secondly, it was asked to disclose its taxation structures as its system purportedly operates on a deduction system as it relates to the driver’s earnings without disclosure as to the payment of corporate, withholding and other taxes and other benefits, which should accrue to its local drivers.”

In TT it was forced to be flexible about its no-cash policy and needed to be inventive about insurance coverage, but in the end it apparently couldn’t modify its product enough to meet the hovering pressure of government regulation.

Uber clearly met a need as online users vented emotions ranging from anger at the claims of a sluggish environment for innovation to deep sadness at a service that its users appeared to love.

Christlyn Moore, attorney and activist in Tobago’s politics, weighed in early on the shutdown of the service.

“I used Uber from February 10, 2017,” Moore said.

“As a customer who used the service at least twice a day (and as much as five times a day), four days a week, I was more satisfied than dissatisfied.”

The company’s presence encouraged the development of rival services built using readily available supporting software, but local solutions never mustered the market presence of the import.

That hasn’t always turned out to be the case for Uber, which abruptly shuttered operations in eight countries across Southeast Asia just five days before it piquantly ended its services in TT. In one year in Trinidad, Uber gave this country a schooling in how deeply a disruptive technology can change a resource held to be immutable for decades.

An entirely new cadre of drivers began delivering passengers to their destinations, many of them earning wages that supported their families while satisfying customers.

It wouldn’t be out of line to say that Uber, and the competition it encouraged, fundamentally changed the notion of the PH driver and offered a model that can be built on for the future.

“The reality is that public transportation is neither sufficient nor reliable enough for the needs of the public,” said Jason Baptiste, a local business executive.

“That is why there was an opportunity for the Government to be proactive in their engagement.”

A group of dedicated former Uber drivers from TT are moving their product to an open platform called RideConnect (rideconnect.com) and described as “a private, social ridesharing marketplace.” The former UberTT drivers will unify their services with the tag TTDRV.

For UberTT, a door has closed, “though from their customers’ perspective, it was slammed shut in their faces,” but another portal has opened.

It’s one that should offer a vista of opportunities to a group of largely young entrepreneurs who embraced the disruptive qualities of modern technology.

Full interviews with keen UberTT users Moore and Baptiste are here: technewstt.com/ride-qa.

Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there

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