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New transport systems and challenges
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New transport systems and challenges

As the fast growing capital city of Ethiopia and seat of the African Union, Addis Ababa is in the midst of putting in place modern transport infrastructure. These days, unlike many sub-Saharan African countries, Addis Ababa has a light rail transportation system and multiple ring roads. In addition, the city has recently introduced meter taxis. However, seeing long queues during rush hours at various bus and taxi stations is still observed and the challenges remain, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

In February, the hashtag #Deleteuber was trending on social media, resulting in more than 200,000 people deleting their accounts with the ride-sharing company. According to various media outlets, the cause of the protest was Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s sitting on President Donald Trump’s Economic Advisory Council.

This resistance forced Kalanick to resign from his position on the council. The association with Donald Trump created a bad reputation for the company. Still many hail Uber as pioneering a modern, easy-to-use digital   transport service delivery system.

By disrupting the old-school taxi service in cities across the globe, Uber gives a reliable, convenient and affordable transport service. Many countries are allowing Uber to transform the traditional taxi service, including neighboring countries Kenya and Uganda.

Its simplicity of use made it a favorite among customers. After downloading the app, it only takes a few taps to find various cars in the vicinity, with the GPS usually picking up the current location one is in, and then put a destination with the street address.

Instantly the app will notify the customer if surge pricing is applicable for that particular ride. One has to agree to the fare before requesting a ride. The next step will be to wait for a few seconds to accept the request, and then the map will display the driver’s location and the time it takes before the driver shows up.

For added convenience of the customer, the app also displays such particulars as driver’s picture, name and telephone number (not in every country), and also the model, color as well as license plate number of the vehicle.

One can also send text or call the driver to let them know the exact location. In any case, when the driver arrives, they would make a call to alert the customer. 

The introduction of Uber in Nairobi is transforming the way the “middle class” uses transport service. With its fleet of brand new cars, Uber is taking over the local transport business.

At the beginning of this passing week, the fare for a one-kilometer Uber ride in Nairobi was around 7.70 birr, with a minimum charge of 44.45 birr.

With the price of a liter of gas around one dollar, and with Uber’s cut at 25%, neither Uber drivers nor vehicle owners was thrilled with the fare. After protest by drivers on Thursday, Uber Kenya agreed to increase the fare by raising the minimum charge to 300 Kenyan shillings (about 66.67 birr) and the tariff per kilometer to 9.35 birr. Elsewhere in Africa, Uber’s expansion plans were met with stiff resistance from local taxi drivers.

Meanwhile, taxi drivers all over the world vent their anger at Uber, complaining of unfair competition. In many countries, taxi unions are protesting against the company, are calling for an injunction to halt Uber’s operations. Despite the resistance, Uber is trying to expand to major African cities, including Addis Ababa.

According to Habtamu Tadesse, founder and general manager of ZayRide, Uber has tried to approach Ethiopian officials. Three years ago, Uber pitched and presented the idea to government officials and stakeholders.

However, Uber could not infiltrate into the Ethiopian market as new transport systems such as meter taxis, the SMS-based RIDE and the Uber- style ZayRide were rolled out in Addis.

Most of the new systems claim to be affordable, secure, convenient and comfortable. According to Habtamu, the traditional cab service was not only expensive, but exposed some customers to illegal activities such as looting. 

Since fares were agreed at through negotiation, in some cases there were controversies if one’s destination was a gravel road or cobblestone. Habtamu strongly believes there was a need for new transport system and that is how he came up with ZayRide – the Uber-like taxi dispatching service that connects riders and taxi drivers based on location.

Habtamu says that Uber requires 3G, LTE or fast Internet speeds and a credit card payment system (though Uber also introduced cash payment systems in countries such as Kenya) so in the case of ZayRide, the developers of the app were able to customize it according to the reality obtaining in Ethiopia.

Habtamu says that they simplified ZayRide app’s features so it uses low resolution that can function with the slow Internet connection in Ethiopia. They also developed a cash-payment system.

Inspired by Uber, ZayRide also uses Google mapping system and GPS to pick up customers’ location and to connect riders and taxi drivers. According to Habtamu, this has been a concern for many people as they assumed that GPS does not work in Addis Ababa. 

“Many people expect perfection on Google map but the reality is Google map is not perfect anywhere in the world. In Ethiopia it works just fine,” Habtamu says.

Since Google map does not have regular updates in Addis Ababa, Habtamu believes it becomes a bit difficult to pinpoint the exact location of new neighborhoods. “The Google map might show Summit area but might not recognize Summit Condominiums. Google map usually spots landmarks so it might be a bit difficult to pinpoint the exact location of people based on such details as house number,” Habtamu says.

In this case, drivers make a call in order to confirm the exact location.

In addition to that, even though Google map recognizes official street names and avenues, Habtamu says that lack of knowledge among taxi riders and drivers when it comes to Addis Ababa’s street names and avenues could potentially cause problems.

According to Habtamu, since Google map is not perfect in many countries, including America, many people use another additional app called Waze, which is the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app.

 

It is not only street names that are confusing customers but, according to Habtamu, many people have problems with location settings.

“Apart from placing and receiving calls as well as browsing the Internet, many people are not familiar with some of the other functions of smartphones. So sometimes there might be a situation where we have to walk them through on how to indicate their location,” says Habtamu.

After that, riders only have to put their drop off location.

In addition to the app for smartphone holders, ZayRide also works with phone calls for regular phone users.

Like Uber, ZayRide does not own any cars, but it works with taxi owners and takes a 15 percent commission on fares.

 So far, they have 540 drivers and within a couple of months, the number of customers has risen to 25,000. Vehicles registered with this company include Toyota Avanzas, Lifans and also blue and white cabs that are in good condition.  

Following tariffs determined by the government, they charge 10 birr for Lifans and the blue and white cabs, and for Avanzas it is 15 birr. "The transport officials determined the fare for Lifan cars but when it comes to Avanzas, it came with a fare of 1.5 birr per minute, which is very expensive. Transport officials have not corrected it yet,” says Habtamu.

 

One of the sticking points between meter-taxi drivers and transport officials is the waiting time, which at the moment is left to riders and drivers to haggle over.

ZayRide did not leave this for negotiation. Rather it is included in a fare, which is the first 15 minutes free; after that, it charges 10 birr every fifteen minutes. They also have promotional packages for holidays as well as for drunk drivers who opt to take ZayRide.

Though they tried to customize the application, and introduced a customer-friendly app, still one of the challenges for Habtamu is the lack of e-receipts.

“ ZayRide sends e-receipts for customers who use the service but the e-receipt are not applicable in any institution and are not recognized by the government so this creates a problem working with various institutions that require receipts,” says Habtamu.

With the introduction of such alternative transport services, some customers tried to use ZayRide and meter taxis. Meseret Lemma who works around the Gurd Shola area is one of them. With transport shortages in the morning rush hour, she tried to take meter taxis from the Piazza area but on some occasions, drivers told her that they are in a queue so they do not work using their meters, rather wanted to negotiate the price. 

Some of the meter taxi drivers that are willing to use their meter also started complaining, arguing that if there is a traffic jam, they would be at a disadvantage. The situation was not what she wanted. “If one gets nice drivers, they do not say anything rather charge according to the distance travelled; but not every driver is like that. This was supposed to eliminate negotiation and get a reliable transport with fixed price but the reality is one has to depend on the goodwill of the driver,” says Meseret.

Looking at these inconveniences, a friend suggested using ZayRide, which she was able to download, and tried it. The first time it was convenient for her but after that, with slow and sometimes unreliable Internet, she could not get hold of ZayRide.

“The Internet is not really reliable and it becomes very difficult to depend on ZayRide," says Meseret. 

Though she faces difficulties with getting hold of ZayRide, she also has a friend who uses ZayRide daily.

It has been a couple of months sine the government determined the tariff for meter taxis but there still seems to be no consensus regarding the fare between the meter taxis and transport officials.

 According to Anteneh Trilo, president of Lucy Taxi Association, the transport officials’ decision on the fare, 10 birr for Lifan cars and 13 birr for Avanza, is ill conceived and did not consider other situations.

This fare was decided with the assumption that the taxis can cover 120 kilometers per day, and will be loaded with customers 75 % of the time, which makes their daily income 1,200 birr. For Anteneh, this assumption is wrong since there are restricted areas such as the airport and hotels. "We do not have the mandate to work everywhere freely rather these places have their own cab services so we are expected to stroll around the city while wasting our fuel," says Anteneh. 

In addition to that, Anteneh argues traffic jams in rush hours, the constantly increasing fuel price, waiting time when customers want to run other errands were not taken into consideration when calculating and fixing the current tariff. The other concern Antenh has is lack of customers. "I believe people with limited means cannot afford meter taxis, and rather this service is for the middle class, which means we are still plying for the same customers who were using the blue and white cabs,” says Anteneh.

He strongly believes customers who are using blue vans (minibus taxis) would not shift to using meter taxis which means the assumption of the government when it comes to customers is wrong. In addition to the kilometer coverage and misconception with the loading factor, Habtamu believes the government does not take into account the depreciating value of vehicles.

On the other hand, the government exempted these vehicles, Lifan cars with 228,000 birr, and the Avanza 460,000 birr, from tax with the assumption that they can give a service with affordable price.

The introduction of these modern systems of transportation  faced various resistance and challenges all over the world. Some also argue that these transport systems will erode human interaction. Throughout the years, many taxi riders created strong bonds with cab drivers.

Many who used cabs created a relationship of trust, and even did not have to pay if they did not have money on them at that moment. Rather, with the introduction of modern transport services, this intimate relationship will disappear and will completely be replaced with a strict business transaction.