How women are driving the changes in the taxi industry
Controversial taxi app Uber wants to launch its rideshare service in Ireland. But will women be happy to hop into an unlicenced car, or will they stick to their beloved Hailo?
Would you get into a cab with an unlicensed taxi driver and a number of other passengers for a significantly reduced fare?
That's the question Uber heads will be asking the people of Ireland if they get the go-ahead to launch a pilot rideshare scheme here. A limited version of the Uber service is already available here - but only through licensed taxi drivers.
The rideshare service is currently illegal in Ireland as all drivers are required to have a PSV-licence. However, a lobbying committee is in the process of trying to persuade the Government to allow them to trial a peer-to-peer ride sharing service in Limerick. Potential Uber drivers would need little more than a decent car and a Smartphone.
A rideshare service would significantly change the landscape of the Irish taxi industry: more cars, cheaper fares, less congestion... and a lot of disgruntled taxi drivers.
The National Transport Authority and the Department of Transport have filed submissions to Transport Minister Shane Ross regarding the possible change of rules.
Hailo, Uber's main rival in Ireland, has also filed a submission. Tim Arnold, general manager of Hailo Ireland, says they commissioned iReach research earlier this year and found that four out of five passengers feel safest in a licensed taxi - and a large majority of people would be against paying a stranger for a lift through ridesharing.
"The survey found very low levels of public support for ridesharing - a practice illegal in Ireland but operating in some parts of the US and Europe, which allows motorists to offer lifts to the public for payment," he adds.
It's not surprising that the view is most prevalent among women, with 88pc saying ridesharing is unacceptable.
The issue is safety. Uber insist that they perform stringent background checks on potential drivers, but a number of cases in the US tell a different story.
Last year, Uber said they would improve their vetting procedures when an unregistered driver who had previously been convicted of assault was granted approval to drive for the company by mistake. He was later arrested in Dallas on suspicion of sexually assaulting a female passenger.
More recently, prosecutors in California alleged that Uber had failed to perform thorough background checks on 25 drivers with criminal records, including a convicted murderer, registered sex offenders and burglars.
Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon fears that Uber's vetting procedures will be similarly lacking if ridesharing is rolled out in Ireland.
"The safety of any person entering a service vehicle must be of paramount importance," he says.
"As it stands, taxi operators go through quite a stringent Garda vetting process and I don't believe that the same standards would apply if Uber were to bring in a ridesharing app."
The issue of the changing face of the taxi landscape is of particular concern to women travelling alone, who may be concerned about getting into a taxi hailed on the street.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the popularity of Hailo - a taxi app which features driver reviews and a GPS map showing where your car is - has much to do with women feeeling more confident about the identity of their driver and that there whereabouts are being tracked, making them feel safer, although Hailo say they believe that their customer base is actually 50pc male and 50pc female.
Nonetheless, security is a big concern for women. Lorna Farrelly, from West Cork, is co-owner of The Brow Artist. She would be slow to use a rideshare service. "I don't think a woman should compromise on personal safety," she says. "Getting into a car with an unlicensed driver and strangers is definitely not worth the risk just to have a less expensive service."
Farrelly uses Hailo, which she considers to be safer. "I actually wouldn't use anything other than this service now. The idea that I have all the details of my driver and that they also have mine means I don't worry about forgetting anything in the car or getting into a dangerous situation."
Still, her experiences with Hailo have not been without incident. "A number of years ago, when Hailo was first launched in Dublin, I had a few unpleasant experiences with drivers using my phone number and contacting me personally," she recalls.
"Luckily, because all information of every trip is recorded, I was able to file a complaint easily."
Blogger Rachel Martin of 'The Insider Daily' is another Hailo customer. She uses the service at least two or three times a week but would never use the Uber rideshare service. "I wouldn't get into a car with an unregistered taxi driver - not in a million years," she says. "I use Hailo - I just think it's a lot safer."
Uber has moved into 450 cities in 70 countries since its launch in 2010, yet their plans for market domination in Ireland have so far eluded them. Meanwhile, Hailo's dominant market share in Ireland is largely due to their 18-month head start over their nearest rival.
There is also a lingering misconception that Uber drivers are unregistered - possibly because the firm also accepts private hire vehicle (or limousine) drivers.
Unsurprisingly, Irish women living abroad are more likely to use Uber - and more receptive to the idea of ridesharing.
Claire Sayers, a special needs coordinator from west Kerry living in London, is an Uber customer. She says the rideshare option is particularly popular with Londoners who are travelling to and from the airport.
Sayers has yet to use the rideshare service, but she wouldn't be averse to it if she had someone she knew in the car with her.
Maryann Cussen, a teacher from Dublin now living in Philadelphia, is also an Uber customer. She says she would use the rideshare option if the "service was reliable and the rates were reasonable".
"My biggest worry would be travelling alone and background checks."
My personal experience of using the Uber rideshare service while in the US was never anything less than excellent. It's 40pc cheaper; the drivers often give out bottled water and sweets to secure a five-star rating, and ridesharers have the car to themselves - at a discounted rate - if it transpires that there are no other passengers going in their direction.
Like many of the women interviewed, I generally took the rideshare option when in the company of a friend.
I also used it once or twice on my own when I needed to travel long distances. Any security concerns were allayed when I reminded myself that Gerry Hutch was granted a taxi licence in my home country.
Uber says ridesharing can "lighten the burden of car ownership". It certainly allowed me to get around without the inconvenience of hiring a rental car while in the States.
There is a lot to love about ridesharing. It saves money, reduces your carbon footprint and encourages you to connect with people that you would otherwise never meet in a world that is becoming increasingly socially isolated.
Communications specialist Edel O'Connell from Cork agrees. "I often share cabs in London and would happily use it if it came here. Because I live a bit outside the city, cab rides add €40 to every night out. I would love to be able to reduce that."
Copywriter Laura Walsh from Dublin would also like the service to come to Ireland. "I'd be 100pc open to using it if it came here. I think it's a fantastic idea - cheaper fares and helping someone earn a few bob. Everyone wins."
Well, everyone except registered taxi drivers. There are already more than 16,500 taxis registered in Ireland and many experts say Ireland simply doesn't have the population or market liquidity to absorb a fleet of considerably cheaper taxis.
They also point out the service's reputation in other European countries. Regulatory roadblocks and taxi industry pressure groups instigated the banning of Uber's rideshare service in a number of countries including France, Germany, Spain and Italy, as well as many local municipalities in the US.
Uber eventually suspended the ridesharing service in France after demonstrations by drivers became violent and two European Uber managers were held by police and questioned.
"The company's attitude seems to be 'It's easier to seek forgiveness than to ask for permission'," says Gary Gannon. "We must not allow Ireland to be another playground for Uber's guerrilla tactics."
Nonetheless, the 'sharing economy', as it is known, is slowly but surely disrupting the old guard. Betfair irrevocably changed the betting industry; Airbnb shook up the hotel industry.
Elsewhere, a number of emerging rideshare competitors are making female passengers their main priority.
Chariot for Women - a taxi service with exclusively female drivers and passengers - was recently launched by a former Uber driver in the US.
Meanwhile, Uber is working hard to implement better security procedures. TripTracker is a new safety feature that offers "peace of mind" by giving Uber customers the option to share a real-time map that shows their route and arrival time to their loved ones.
"Whether you're riding in the back seat or driving upfront, every part of the Uber experience has been designed around your safety and security," says Kieran Harte, general manager, Uber Ireland.
Uber may not get the go-ahead to launch their pilot service in Limerick today or tomorrow - but it looks like they are preparing for a long journey ahead.