Calling an Uber is an act in five parts: make a request, book a ride, find your driver, get home, text your friend once you’ve arrived to let them know you’re not stuffed in a trunk. I’ve asked relative strangers to message me when they’ve made it home, and I’ve demanded friends text me when they’re walking through their front door. For women, trans, and nonbinary people—especially of color—booking a ride with Uber, or any other ridesharing service, feels like a gamble.
That’s no longer the case in London. On Monday, Uber lost its license to operate in the British capital, due to a “pattern of failures that placed passenger safety at risk, including vulnerabilities in Uber’s app that allowed unauthorized drivers to carry thousands of riders,” according to The New York Times. (Uber plans to appeal the decision, and will continue to operate in London while the appeal is pending.)
So, why is this pattern allowed to continue here, in the United States? It’s simple: Gender-based violence is ingrained in our culture, and while Trump is hardly the cause we’ve collectively managed to overlook systemic sexual assault and harassment as effectively as we’ve overlooked the fact that a rapist is sitting in the Oval Office.
Uber is the Donald Trump of rideshare apps and, like Trump himself, we’ve allowed it to operate business as usual.
In 2018, 103 U.S. Uber drivers were accused of sexual assault and harassment, according to CNN Business. In the same year Uber published a list of 21 categories defining sexual assault and harassment reported by passengers and drivers—the company’s “first step towards ending it.”
But “it” hasn’t ended. Uber’s version of Trump’s “I’m sorry I was caught bragging about sexual assault” apology hasn’t adequately addressed the issues that keep passengers feeling unsafe. Passengers like Emma Lord, who called an Uber pool for a ride from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy Airport. “Something I’d normally never do,” Lord tells me, “but it was a work trip and an early flight.”
At the beginning of her trip, she noticed her driver mark it “complete.” “Uber was no longer tracking the car or its route,” she says. “I was the only one in the car and uneasy, but when I asked why the app said that, the driver dismissed me.”
Thankfully, Lord was able to get her driver to stop the car and let her out. After reporting the issue and speaking to a rep, she was offered a $50 credit and the promise that she’d never be paired with that driver again.
“It was clear at the end of this day-long ordeal of contacting Uber that the company was aware of the issue and even sympathetic to it, but were making no meaningful transparent effort to warn riders that it might happen, or what they should do if it did,” she says.
Lord’s is just one of countless stories about rideshare companies prioritizing profit over customer safety. And Lord is one of the “lucky” ones. Was she able to successfully use the service as advertised? No. Was she, the customer, valued by the company she was patronizing? No. But she wasn’t harmed in the terrifying way so many of us fear we might be when we call an Uber or Lyft.
And in a country that elected a man accused of sexual assault, harassment, and/or rape by over 40 women (and counting), that’s good enough.
In a country where the president endorsed a man accused of pedophilia, hired and defended a man accused of domestic violence, and believes his own accusers are simply too ugly to assault, platitudes and empty promises about “ensuring customer safety” apparently constitute an acceptable answer from a company valued in the billions.
But it’s not acceptable to Alison Turkos, who, in October of 2017, was kidnapped at gunpoint, taken across state lines, and along with at least two other men, raped by her Lyft driver. “What should have been 15 to 17 minute ride home turned into the worst night of my life,” she tells me. Since her rape, Turkos has sued the company for mishandling her report.
“They assured me the driver dropped me at home and continued the drive, that there was no way the kidnapping took place. They refunded me for the excess of the ride, but charged me for what the original ride would have been,” she tells me. “Gaslighting me to believe my trauma was not real.”
Turkos, and others, are trying to hold Uber and Lyft accountable. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently sent letters to both companies, asking for more information on their driver policies and saying their responses to date have lacked “any sense of priority.” But Turkos knows where the power lies and how difficult it is to redistribute that power in any real way. “It’s not that we haven’t tried, or that we aren’t trying, it’s that we are a rowboat in the middle of a hurricane,” she says.
Which is why more of us need to stand up to these companies if any tangible change is to occur. More of us need to denounce these lackadaisical responses by swearing off rideshare apps entirely. When Trump was elected president he normalized a systemic issue that pre-dated him and had already permeated every industry in this nation.
For tech companies like Uber and Lyft to face any semblance of a reckoning, we need to take off our metaphorical “I don’t care, do you?” jackets and ride the subway or bike or carpool with friends or find another mode of transportation that doesn’t consider rape, sexual assault, harassment, and the demolished safety of women to be the collateral damage of profitability. And we need to support candidates who vow to hold them accountable and will strip them of their licenses if they don’t live up to a bar that has, to date, been set entirely too low.
While Londoners have their own political Trump to deal with, they’ve managed to rid themselves of their rideshare version.
The question is, will we?