12 June, 2014

Turkish dolmush meets Valley Uber to solve our transport problems

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday June 11, 2014

Many years ago I spent a little time in Istanbul, Turkey, and was impressed by their dolmush shared taxi service. In every large street you will see little huddles of people waiting. A quick question finds the group going to the suburb you need to reach. In minutes along comes a big sedan or mini bus, everyone piles in and you are taken to your destination. The fare is shared between the passengers, so it works out very cheap.
The memory comes back when I think about the crushing price of car ownership and city travel these days. The RACV calculates the cost of a car - a Toyota or a Commodore mind, nothing prestige - at $11,000 a year. If you live in the inner suburbs it will spend a lot of its life sitting on the kerb; if you're outer, you can multiply the cost of fuel and maintenance.

And if you've breathed the air in Beijing or Bangkok you'll know what the future holds for you and your children if we don't do something soon.

A lot of forward thinkers have applied themselves to the question, and they don't think deeper than in Silicon Valley. By last weekend the car-sharing service Uber had raised a staggering $1.2 billion investment, with a company valuation of $17 billion.

They are in Melbourne, as in 128 cities in 37 countries. Download their app and they can be at your service in minutes - the system hinges on a pushbutton smartphone application.

They claim some users have already given up their cars and rely on Uber for their driving needs. Boasts inventor Travis Kalanick: "With our growth and expansion, the company has evolved from being a scrappy Silicon Valley tech start-up to being a way of life for millions."

But he does not have the field all to himself. Even here in Melbourne. There are smartphone taxi apps like Ingogo and GoCatch. They have been aggressively pulling in conventional taxis and GoCatch has already pulled 20,000 onto its books. Needless to say CabCharge, after years of comfortable monopoly, is hopping mad.

Their protests about unlicensed taxi services taking fares of passengers have been heard. In a crossing of swords, Victorian Taxi Services Commissioner Graeme Samuel dealt Uber a blow by fining over 30 drivers $1700 apiece.

Uber parried by slapping down the cash for their drivers, some $60,000. (Mind you, with $1.2 billion in your pocket you can afford to be magnanimous.) Uber's head of global policy commented in Germany: "It is crazy that someone got a $1700 ticket in Melbourne for providing a service that is faster and cheaper than a taxi. Nothing about that to me feels criminal, nothing about that feels bad for the consuming public."
Other forms of sharing have emerged. Car Next Door calls itself "neighbour to neighbour car sharing". Again based on an app, you can find a car and hire it for an hour at $5, or a day at $25 - minimums depending on the car - at the times when the owner isn't using it.

And then there are services like Backseat, which automates car pooling. This has long been popular in the US and Europe - and locally like the Rideshare programme at Monash.

As your car sits, waiting to feed into the freeway traffic flow, you can't help noticing those thousands of shiny big cars passing, each with its single driver. And you think, "the Turks would sit three or four more in there."

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