Here’s one entry on the long list of things that are anxiety-provoking for women, but about which the average man doesn’t think twice: taking a taxi. The idea that women who travel alone by taxi are in danger is neither novel nor partisan — it is widely accepted as a self-evident fact. Getting into a taxi is essentially getting into a stranger’s car, knowing that he (it is usually a he) has control of where the car goes — and when the doors unlock. Unlike other interactions with strangers in day-to-day life, this one involves a particularly high level of vulnerability.
Uber receives around 3000 in-app reports of sexual assault per year in the US
In the 2000s, Transport for London released a hard-hitting series of advertisements including one where a woman who appears to be under attack in a taxi pleads with the viewer to “no, please, please stop” taking unbooked minicabs. These doubtless would not be produced today, but they made a strong impression on me as a teenager. Ask almost any woman and she’ll likely describe feeling at least a little nervous taking a cab on her own, especially at night; she may also describe strategies such as sending a picture of the number plate to a friend, talking on the phone during the journey, or tracking the car’s progress on Google Maps.
These fears are not paranoia: hundreds of sexual assaults connected to taxis and private hire vehicles are reported to the police each year in London alone, and the number of unreported incidents is likely significantly higher. Britain’s most famous serial rapist, John Worboys, used his status as a black cab driver to access victims; he is thought to have attacked over a hundred women before being jailed in 2009.
Compared to traditional taxi companies, cheap gig-economy ride sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft have been accused of cutting corners on vetting, and consequently are perceived to be less safe. After it was revealed that Uber receives around 3000 in-app reports of sexual assault per year in the United States, the company announced that safety was their number one priority, and unveiled a host of new safety features. Now, users can choose to share their trip status in real time with “trusted contacts”, or call emergency services at the touch of a button.
But there is one obvious safety feature that has yet to be implemented: allowing female passengers to choose female-only drivers. Far beyond providing peace of mind, this move would effectively eliminate one hundred per cent of sexual assault and harassment on Uber’s platform (these are, with a few exceptions, exclusively male-on-female crimes). Unlike the current features of Uber’s “safety toolkit”, which can at best stop incidents from escalating, pairing female riders with female drivers would prevent such incidents from ever occurring.
This service would be welcomed by women. In an admittedly unscientific survey I conducted on Twitter before writing this, almost all of more than 400 respondents said that yes, they would like to be able to choose female taxi drivers. Over half said they would be willing to pay a premium to have this option. Female-only drivers are a potentially profitable gap in the market.
Across the country, a handful of independent taxi services have tried to meet this demand. One of the most publicised has been the Pink Ladies of Warrington, which was set up in 2005 with local celebrity Kerry Katona (previously of Atomic Kitten) at the helm. Despite its popularity, the company was mired in controversy, being fined by the council in 2009 for operating without proper licence and eventually closing in 2015 due to “red tape”.
In Oxford, a company called Her Ride founded in 2016 was marketed as “Oxford’s original and only taxi service exclusively for the women of Oxfordshire”. Radical feminist student that I was, I quickly became a loyal customer.
However, one evening in 2019 when I phoned Her Ride, I was asked if I would mind being picked up by a male driver instead. Surprised, I agreed. Since then, male drivers appear to be their default. On one occasion, I was dropped off in an unfamiliar area and was startled to find I could not open the car door. “Oh, yes, that’s just my child lock,” explained the driver. Keeping me locked in the back seat was perhaps an understandable oversight, but it was still one that illustrates why many women might like to use a women-only service. In any case, Her Ride’s original mission seems to have rather fallen by the wayside: their tagline no longer mentions women or exclusivity; instead, they are “dedicated to taking the people of Oxfordshire to their destination of choice”.
Her Ride’s founder told me that the decision to start hiring male drivers was not an easy one
Over the phone, Her Ride’s founder, Ghazala Khan, told me that the decision to start hiring male drivers was not an easy one. Having started the company to provide an option for women who don’t feel comfortable travelling alone, “it took six months to get my head around it”, she says– but looking at the accounts, expanding the company to become mixed sex simply made more sense. Only one per cent of taxi drivers licenced by Oxford City Council are women, and of those, many have family commitments preventing them from covering certain shifts. As a small company — Her Ride has fewer than thirty drivers — hiring men as well as women ended up being necessary in order to expand and stay afloat.
Recruiting sufficient drivers was the largest difficulty faced by Her Ride as a women-only service, but not the only one. There were also some “silly calls”, as Ghazala puts it, asking what the driver would be wearing, for instance. As well as this, there was also a perception from some quarters that such a service was discriminatory. The Equality Act is clear that hiring only men or only women is legal if being a member of a particular sex is a justified occupational requirement for the job. But without specific guidance, there’s always a slight worry of having to engage in a legal dispute if somebody decided to take a complaint further, she tells me.
Despite the change in focus, “the ethos is still there”: by maintaining a roster of roughly one third female drivers, Her Ride is able to offer a female driver to any customer who makes the request, although this may increase their wait time. Ghazala is audibly proud of Her Ride’s longstanding partnership with a local mental health charity, providing female drivers for women who may otherwise be unable to use public transport.
It strikes me that app-based companies like Uber would be more likely to have the size and flexibility to offer a true women-only service (for instance, see Boston-based Safr). This might require a serious recruitment push. Tackling the alarming levels of sexual harassment faced by female drivers, perhaps by offering the option of picking up female rather than male passengers– a feature that already exists in Saudi Arabia– may help to make the job more attractive. There are plenty of potential objections, of course, but we should not allow ourselves to be limited by what writer Jeremy Driver calls the “cheems mindset”: the habit of “automatically dismissing an idea on the basis that it cannot be done, or would be hard to do”. Violence against women, and the resulting anxiety that prevents women from fully participating in public life, is a pervasive and serious problem. It deserves serious attention: there is no reason we should expect meaningful solutions to come from quick fixes.
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