Life, Middle East

A Jordan Rant: Uber and lack of public transit

I never used Uber when I was living in Washington DC. Between the metro, buses, and a zipcar account, Uber and taxis were something I used maybe twice in three years.

But in Jordan, I depend on Uber to get around. Usually I’ll try to flag a regular taxi before calling Uber, but there are times I’ve waited 40 minutes to find an empty taxi. And then if you do manage to find an empty taxi, the driver doesn’t want to go where you need to go, or wants to charge you 5-10x the normal price because of “traffic.” There is always traffic in Amman. Always.

And if you do get a taxi, the driver almost always treats you to an onslaught of extremely personal questions. I think every woman I know here has been sexually harassed or assaulted by taxi drivers. One Jordanian girl friend told me about how she was once in a taxi that got stuck in traffic next to a sidewalk cafe where people were smoking argileh. The driver launched into a diatribe about seeing women smoking in public, blaming my friend for getting him stuck in traffic at such an offensive place. Recently, after news broke that a Jordanian writer had been assassinated in front of a court, a taxi driver praised the killer’s actions to my colleague who was in the car.

But then there’s Uber, which is safer in a number of ways, especially for women: if you’re not sure exactly how to get someplace, you just pop it in the GPS. You know the driver’s name, phone number, and license plate number if something happens. Fares are not decided on the whims of some unstable, perpetually angry taxi driver, and you can dispute charges. And you get a receipt, which is essential if you have to expense transportation for work.

But Uber is still not officially registered here. Even though Uber fares are usually at least twice the cost of a regular taxi (thus making them unaffordable for the majority of Jordanians), taxi drivers are angry because Uber charges a flat rate to the airport. And more problems started when Uber started accepting cash, rather than only credit cards, opening them up to many more customers who don’t have bank cards that work online.

So rather than sorting this out legally, recognizing that they provide an essential transportation function in Amman, traffic police are stopping anyone who might be an Uber driver. Since they all have to drive rental cars, it’s easy to tell from the license plate, and if there’s a woman sitting in the back seat, it’s obvious that the car is being used as a taxi, not just two friends or colleagues driving together. Some drivers have a cover story and carry papers showing that they work for a travel agency. If caught, drivers are fined several thousand dinars (which could be a year’s salary here), their cars are impounded, and if caught again they serve jail time.

Uber drivers and passengers have wised up to this a bit though, and know that traffic police will always be waiting at shopping centers and major traffic circles – so they drop you off a short walk away or on a back street to avoid police. And now most Uber drivers ask women passengers to sit up front with them to avoid being pulled over. But this creates problems for local women, who, either because of years of bad behavior from taxi drivers, or for fear of being seen in an unmarked car with a strange man, will only sit in the back seat. It’s always an awkward dance: the driver is embarrassed to ask the woman to sit next to him, yet it also feels inappropriate to just hop in the front seat without discussing it first.

This problem exists because the city has failed to create any sort of mass transit system. In the last ten years Amman’s population has probably at least doubled thanks to the wars in the region. While it’s not like most Syrians and Iraqis managed to just drive into Jordan with their cars, there are just a lot more people trying to get around on the roads and not enough taxis and minibuses to do it. And over the summer (aka Khaleeji season) some 100,000 cars entered Jordan through Gulf countries, making for one hellish traffic jam.

So far this response to Uber is only catering to the taxi lobby, not to the needs of residents, it makes transportation more difficult and dangerous for women, and the fines can seriously wreck someone’s life – in a country with staggering youth unemployment, driving for Uber is sometimes the only available job for young men who can’t find work in their own fields.

I think this will have to get sorted out eventually, and Uber probably doesn’t want to leave Jordan altogether. But how many pointless arrests it will take? Who knows.

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