Uber claims it opens cities up – but really closes them down

Uber drivers protest the company's pay policies in New York City, February 2016. Image: Getty.

Most of us know the story of what Salon’s Elias Isquith calls “Wall Street’s favourite disrupter”. Uber, the ride-hailing service run primarily through smartphones, is a global economic success story.

In 2008, it was but an idea held by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. Today it is a profit-making “unicorn”, recently valued at $62.5 billion.

How Uber came to be worth such significant sums is a question often posed. Integral to its success was its speedy efforts at connecting riders with drivers through smartphones. It became an on-demand disruptor business and, in the process, alluringly branded itself as a service “for the good of all” that puts “people first”.

Uber takes from over-priced taxis, facilitates livelihoods for its drivers, gives to the needy rider and sticks it to urban regulators – or so the story goes.

Much closer to the truth may be that, when Uber isn’t wrapping itself in cloaks of communal good, it is busy trying to institute a monopoly on ride-hailing. It actively encloses what could be a more open city in which riders and drivers work to benefit city residents.

Now you’re open, now you’re closed

In other words, Uber “opens” cities to “close” them. It's just another intermediary capitalist (like eBay, Airbnb and PayPal) that profits from the needs of typically urban people connected to the internet. It's an extension of capitalism, a business trying to maximise its market share.

Uber “opens to close” a city in three steps:

  • It disrupts the existing taxi monopoly (a closed system) through marketing and paying fines incurred by its drivers;

  • It entices riders to download its app, drivers to “share” their car, and urban regulators to acquiesce to the popularity of the Uber service; and

  • It excludes ride-hailing alternatives through its maximised market share.

The marketing Uber uses to disrupt the grip one or more taxi companies have on a city is to present a rich rhetoric of being the “alternative”, somehow “grassroots” and, most importantly, a “communal” choice for drivers and riders. It casts itself as a Robin Hood in the struggle against unjust, or simply outdated, urban regulators.

This branding, Uber’s cheaper price and its convenient app make it an alluring option for ride-hailers. So long, cabbie dynasty, this city is now open.

But because Uber grows within the shell of the taxi industry all it really does is open a city to enclose it for its own benefit. It does this through consistent marketing to riders, but also by enticing drivers to partner with Uber with promises of higher pay and a be-your-own-boss mentality.

Uber also crows about creating tens of thousands of jobs and getting 1m women into work. This helps to get regulators onside.

A city is “closed” when Uber’s enclosure is complete: when it has successfully disrupted taxis, changed ride-hailing regulation and has a city’s residents on board (so to speak).

We say closed because an “Uber city” is a city captured by intermediary (middleman) capitalism. Defeated taxis are creating their own apps, and alternatives abound. But Uber’s market dominance makes it very difficult for more meaningful alternatives to emerge.

Market dominance means the exclusion of competitors and the control of the means of production so that profits keep rolling in. “Capture your market” is a mantra for a reason. And that reason is because it works – it’s Capitalism 101.


An open-city alternative

The need to get around a city safely and conveniently shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity for businesses like Uber to cash in. 

A truly open city would be one where residents are invited, supported and backed by their city government to create their own ride-hailing apps. Riders still get picked up for a fair price, drivers still get paid more, but profit goes into a public trust to ensure the apps provide good service but also to fund resident-specific projects, like bike roads fully separated from cars.

Not only will this keep jobs and money inside the city, but it also puts a vital transportation resource into the hands of city residents and not a foreign business. The need to get around a city safely, conveniently and with as little carbon emissions as possible shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity for businesses like Uber to cash in. It should rather be treated as a common pool resource.

Since the majority of people in cities still depend on cars and roads to get around, chasing the wrong incentives can lead to chronic traffic jams and a host of other problems.

City residents don’t want traffic jams; moving around is a vital part of their daily lives. Uber doesn’t necessarily mind traffic jams because of surge pricing and a rolling meter – it still makes money. Ironically, despite this conflict of interests, Uber is the $62bn Wall Street poster child and the open-city alternative is excluded.

Uber may open cities from taxi rackets, but it closes them off to the possibility of more radical and meaningful alternatives.The Conversation

Jean-Paul Gagnon is assistant professor in politics, David Carter associate dean of research and Fanny Thornton assistant professor of law at the University of Canberra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.