Monday, January 26, 2015

Thoughts on Uber in Korea

The following is my opinion on Uber's troubled entrance into Korea.

20101018 kia k5 taxi 01.jpg
"20101018 kia k5 taxi 01" by Chu
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Taxis in Korea. There's a lot one could say about them, and a lot the media has said about them. Sometimes they are sex criminals. Sometimes they attack foreigners. Sometimes foreigners attack them. Sometimes they do bad-ass things that, really, they probably shouldn't have done.

Would Uber solve any of these problems? No. For whatever lack of qualifications, manners, tact, what-have-you that taxi drivers here might be accused of having, the cold fact is that Uber doesn't solve those issues. I'll grant that it's better for the environment and the "sharing economy" but, in Korea at least, if the meter's running (and that's a big "if"), then Uber isn't going to save much in the way of taxi fare, but it would indeed put a large number of taxi drivers out of work. And I don't know about you, but I personally like being able to walk out of an office and immediately hail a taxi.

What I do not like, and I cannot stress this enough, is the actual act of speaking to the drivers. I'd wager that 40~50% of the time, there's no problem. I get in, greet them, state my destination, and we enjoy the ride smoothly, quickly, in silence, with the driver often making legally questionable maneuvers that I nonetheless appreciate for helping me to arrive on-time (though they often look oddly at me, I always wear the seatbelt).

But the other half-times, I get pulled into some useless conversation about my Korean speaking, and my home country, and how the cabbie's got a cousin living in Canada and he says blah blah and somehow this degrades into an argument about where exactly I intend to go.  

No, sir, not City Hall, the -gu office. The -gu office. No, I know most foreigners go to City Hall area. No sir, I'm not mistaken. Sir you're now going the wrong way. Yes sir, I know you've been driving for 30 years, but the GPS in my hand right now, not to mention the street signs passing us by, all indicate that you're now heading in the wrong direction. No sir, I'm not confused. OH FOR FUCKS SAKE just let me out. 

That last line always seems to set things straight.

And this is where Uber, or rather, the threat of Uber, comes in. Though I don't feel any affinity towards Uber itself, it's the threat the Uber has presented that most excites me, for it seem to have been the kick-in-the-butt that taxi companies here needed to get on the whole geolocation bandwagon. I have a lot of Korean friends, and their default behavior has always been (1.) look outside for taxi, and (2.) if no taxi, call the "Call Taxi" service who dispatches a nearby cab, the driver of which calls you five minutes later confused about preciesly where you are, and you have to stay on the line with him for another five minutes while he roams around the blocks looking for you. When he finally finds you, you repeat your destination again because apparently he wasn't notified, and he gets angry because it's not near an area he was hoping to stay in.

Clearly what started well ended inefficiently.

Image Credit: Korea Economic Daily

So it's with hopefulness that I look forward to things like Kakao's taxi service. I'm not a huge fan of Kakao either, but I can testify that they do a good job making their apps foreigner-friendly. If I can use my Kakao account to hail a taxi,  input my destination, and get a price estimate, then the fact that the actual transportation is being done by a licensed taxi driver rather than an unemployed guy with time on his hands (really, is there a difference?) is only an icing on the cake. It will take a company like Kakao to make this happen; I highly doubt the city government or the cab companies themselves will produce an English-language app (or, dare I say, multi-lingual app?). But Kakao at least has a proven track record in making their apps efficient and user-friendly.

So at the end of the day, I don't really care exactly which app I use or exactly what kind of car picks me up. I understand others may support Uber on moral or preferential grounds; I am only speaking for myself here. I want to get from point A to point B as painlessly as possible, with minimal speaking, maximum reliability, and above all, able to initiate/execute the task in English (obviously I'm much stronger in English than Korean). If Uber provides that, fine. If the Korean government blocks Uber but allows for a domestic service that offers me, the foreigner customer, the same basic feature set, then fine again. I already use Kakao anyway. One less service to sign-up for.

So come on Daum-Kakao. Don't let me down.

Although if they fail, and my only recourse is to install some government-sanctioned Active-X-laden certificate-checking app that's 55MB and requires a vaccine app as well and then won't recognize my 영문 name, then I'll be singing a different tune...

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