"London is apparently littered with bottles of discarded Uber piss." So why are cab drivers peeing in bottles?

You do what you gotta do. Image: Hans at pixabay.

Uber drivers have their fair share of logistical difficulties. Momentum, the magazine launched last year by the company to provide its drivers with support and advice, numbers among them such pressing concerns as "keeping fit despite driving all day" and "finding a toilet" .

Sadly, we don't have an issue to hand, so we're not sure how the company expects drivers to use the bathroom while on the job. But based on other evidence, it looks like drivers have found their own, impressively innovative solution to the whole peeing problem.  

From Twitter, earlier this week: 

But it could be just that driver, right? 

Well, no. A reply, a few minutes later: 

And another: 

So far, so anecdotal. But some digging around on independently-run Uber driver forums (again, not entirely verifiable, but it's a start) implies that the practice is pretty common among drivers, though uptake seems depend on location (we'll get to why in a minute).

On this thread, one driver explains that he has trouble finding a bottle of the right, er, size and width to pee in. Other drivers respond, recommending Gatorade or Vitamin Water bottles. 

Another recommends disposable urinal bags, available in packs of six from Amazon for a mere $12. Drivers on this thread, meanwhile, claim to use "pee cups" or "pee jugs". 


So why this desperate state of affairs? Some forum users joke that efficient use of time is key to an Uber driver's business, and so refusing to stop to relieve yourself could just be a way to rake in more rides.

But the confusion among other drivers who haven't needed to resort to an in-vehicle pee receptacle hints at another, more location-specific issue. Those who advise finding "a dark area with trees" or a 24-hour Wal-Mart are mostly based in the US, where parking and facilities are far easier to find. But in cities like London, free parking is thin on the ground, while non-customer use of toilets is usually frowned upon.

Public toilets in London, especially at night, tend to be placed in areas with busy nightlife, where drivers are unlikely to find a parking spot. Yes, that driver in the original tweet could have gone to Starbucks – but he could have ended up paying both the price of a coffee and a parking ticket for the privilege. 

One driver on reddit says Washington DC's bathrooms are also particularly driver-unfriendly: 

Bathroom breaks... It's really the only aspect of driving for uber that bothers me! In downtown, DC business are definitely not hospitable to non-customer bathroom use... Many spots (McDonald's for example) go so far as to lock their bathroom doors and attach token machines to unlock them. 

In fact, the same kinds of issues affect most people who drive for a living. The UK's declining number of public bathrooms – one in seven of which closed in the three years to November 2013 alone – has made it much harder to find available facilities. This Quora thread implies that London's cabbies face very similar problem to its Uber drivers, though one commenter emphasises that they draw the line at adult diapers:

No London cabbie I know would own up to wearing diapers!!  (We call them nappies).  

But the driver on Reddit raises another, separate issue, this time about the Uber business model in particular. Uber recently introduced a guaranteed hourly rate for drivers if they abide by certain rules. These include accepting 90 per cent of ride requests, staying online for 50 out of every 60 minutes, and completing at least one ride an hour.

The move was designed to stop drivers working for multiple rideshare apps at once, but it has a side effect. A couple of bathroom breaks – which could require driving all the way to a public bathroom, or buying food or drink in order to use facilities –could easily break one or more of these rules, depriving drivers of vital income.

All in, it's one more reason to fight to keep public toilets open in major cities. Alternatively, you could support organisations like the Cabmen's Shelter Fund, which runs London's handful of "green hut" rest spots for cabbies (we assume these aren't open to Uber and other hire-car drivers, though were unable to reach the charity to confirm). These were founded in the late 19th century, but, like public toilets, have dwindled in recent years. There are now just 13 left in the capital. 

Or, of course, car firms could take a little responsibility for providing facilities and breaks for their drivers. But for Uber, a company which has little to no contact with its drivers, this seems just a little unlikely. 

We have approached Uber for comment and will update this piece accordingly if and when they respond. 

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.