Last week, the taxi app Uber became front-page news, with Transport for London refusing to grant the company a new licence until it cleans up its act. The fact is women are being assaulted in Ubers and Uber stands accused of failing to make this a number-one priority. And so as TfL plays hardball with Uber due to its failure to report sexual assault to the police, people are now muttering about “safety concerns”. They appear to say it quietly, almost begrudgingly, as if they don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, or even just shake it a little bit. Allow me to say it instead. Every time I get into a taxi – an Uber or a black cab or a licensed minicab – alone at night, I don't like it.
Here’s how it usually goes: I check who the driver is waiting for and get in. I say “Evening!” in the most authoritative voice I can muster. I put my seatbelt on, positioning myself to avoid eye contact in the rear-view mirror. I switch on Google Maps on my phone and keep it open in my hand, following the blue dot like a caveman marvelling at new technology. He’s just taking a short cut along King’s Road, that’s OK, I’ve done that before. My keys are pointing through my fingers, ready to be used like a cat’s claws. If the driver tries to have a conversation, I start rabbiting away, aware my voice is a slightly higher pitch than normal. If he is pro-Brexit, I will always agree with him. Just in case. If he says nothing, I wonder if he’s the murderous, silent type. I give the driver a big tip, relieved to have arrived home in one piece.
Poor driver, you might say. I know, however, that I’m not being (entirely) irrational. A campaign group – admittedly, one with an axe to grind – found that Uber and Lyft drivers around the world had allegedly been involved in 92 sexual assaults over the summer of 2017 – and those are just the incidents that made it into the newspapers. It’s not just the taxi apps, either. When I was living in New York, I wrote about figures that showed there had been 14 reported rapes committed by taxi or for-hire vehicle drivers in 2015. And we all know reported numbers are a fraction of the real problem. For me, it’s not about the individual driver. I just feel anxious when I have no control and a man is behind the wheel.
For me, it’s not about the individual driver. I just feel anxious when I have no control and a man is behind the wheel
So, what to do? Labour’s idea of women-only train carriages was unpalatable, as the policy is more like a sticking plaster on a wound and does not address the root cause of violence against women. Yet I would love to see an Uber for women. Not a company with a pink logo and a website that advertises days out for Luxurious Ladies, but a reasonably priced, mainstream service on an app. I often think about starting my own – maybe I’d call it GalRide, or WoCabz. I could ride around London all night along, the cold metal of my keys tucked into my handbag. If someone brings SheGoes to market before me, I’d be delighted.
My feeling of vulnerability at being enclosed in such a confined space with a stranger does not exist in a vacuum. As a news reporter, I’ve spent years being submerged in those “Man-Cuts-Off-Woman’s-Head-And-Makes-Soup” headlines. It’s hard to assess the impact of the rolling news until you realise you’re less fearless and more on constant alert. That state of heightened awareness comes in many scenarios: walking down a dark street, going through an underpass, or even just booking an Uber.
I don’t want to malign the majority of perfectly responsible male taxi drivers. But until Uber places more priority on passenger safety and we start talking more openly about the risks women take when they go home at night – even when they can track the car on their app – my unease will continue. After all, I have the right to feel safe when I go home at night and – because of the facts, the Uber court cases and the sensational headlines – I don’t right now.