Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Rise and Fall of the Uber Empire (in Chennai)

Uber hit the expat scene in Chennai like water to a parched throat. Autos are plentiful, but you (or the driver) have to know where you're going... and negotiating a price can be tiresome. Uber solved this with GPS pick-up and drop-off points and mandatory metered pricing. For awhile, it was so popular that it really made us start wondering if future officers should even bother with buying cars. Sure, there were the occasional infuriating conversations where the driver called and asked for a landmark and you repeatedly told him to JUST LOOK AT THE MAP ON HIS PHONE... but it was still the easiest way to get a taxi. To give you an idea, sending our nanny home after a late-night of babysitting cost nearly 2/3rds as much and was haggle free, once we could just order her an Uber. She also feels enormously safer riding in a car alone at night, rather than trying to pick up an auto on the side of the road. Heck, at its peak, I even ordered a taxi in Chennai for my wife and son, while I was at a friend's house in Europe!

Unfortunately, sometime last year the Uber market just... sort of crashed. I don't know what happened, but the drivers just dried up. It went from always seeing a dozen cars nearby, to being lucky to see one (and rushing to request it)! There is still a presence, and it is still fairly reliable during the day, but no longer can we confidently say, "we don't need to arrange transport to the airport at 4am, we'll order an Uber." Ordering a taxi to take our nanny home is now a 10-15 minute process, or hoping a car will appear and that you'll be the person to get it. I couldn't say what changed, but here's an interesting article from WIRED on Uber's business model in India.

PS: We've tried OLA as well (a similar company founded in India), it's always been not-quite-as-good as Uber for us. We even booked a taxi in advanced to take us to the airport, using OLA, and it was cancelled 2 minutes before we had planned to leave (surprise!)

PPS: Uber doesn't operate in Buenos Aires, guess we'll see what the local market has when we get there!

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