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We moonlighted for Uber; here's what we learned

How Uber infiltrated Manila’s labyrinthine streets and succeeded in making the Philippines the only country (so far) where they’re legal.
ILLUSTRATOR Maine Manalansan
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Twenty floors up a corporate tower, at the headquarters of Uber Philippines, expansive glass windows offer a view of the city. Below, the C-5 highway stretches into the horizon, and roads light up red with brake lights from bumper-to-bumper traffic.

I am squeezed into a one-hour slot to be briefed on how to be an Uber driver. They run me through the Uber Partner application: how to accept riders, navigate with Waze, trace my earnings, add my profile picture, etc., (I submitted my profile photo thrice because my photos weren’t Uber-standard). They, or rather, a very uncomplicated video with animations, demonstrate the process for me. They talk about their new product UberPool, which allows a driver to pick up more than one rider heading toward the same direction. The idea is that sharing a ride with someone else allows the rider to save on costs; somehow the driver earns more, and sharing means there are fewer cars on the road.

Next to mathematics, and maybe, I don’t know, love—Uber seems to speak to a universal need.

The good people of Uber Manila move incredibly fast. They calmly flip and swipe through multiple smartphones while carrying a conversation in a rapid-fire manner, fitting what seems like upwards of three sentences a minute and ending every spiel with a perfectly timed declarative, as if it were rehearsed many times before. I’m so used to meetings where our phones screens are face down on purpose, there is an acceptable amount of eye contact, and people bide time with idle chitchat that runs for hours (if the conversation is good). But our short training session has no time for tête-à-tête—they have to go, it was nice meeting me, they say, but there are an umpteenth number of meetings that must be attended to; no worries, they reassure, they will send me all the video materials so that I can go over them in my own time; and if I’ve got any questions all I have do is text or call or email, and they’ll respond at once, at whatever time of the day, in whatever day of the week. And then I am respectfully ushered out the door approximately 45 minutes after I walked in, and I feel a little bit out of place from my own generation of people often referred to as millennials.


* * *

The workspace of Uber would strike one as predominantly millennial: surprisingly hip and alive with a youthful energy; chinos, denim vests, round neck t-shirts and jeans meandering around. There is controlled chaos in office chairs not tucked in desks, typical office clutter, an impressive pantry stocked with food, and scribbles on glass windows.

General Manager Laurence Cua, I heard, is the urbane, corporate sort; impassioned about the brand. I spot a tall, effortless Filipino-Chinese man in shorts and a light rain jacket, casually saunter across the room. “Oh, is that him?” I ask. Their marketing manager looks toward my gaze and laughs, “That’s our intern,” he says, gently touching my arm. (Uber actually only has around 15 employees to manage the corporate aspect, a separate floor houses the manpower who take care of things like customer service, and the rest of the 25 people running around the office are interns.)

“How do you convince or explain something to someone, when that someone hasn’t seen it before?”

Laurence has a packed schedule, but he still made time for an interview at 8:30 p.m. He has a light smattering of salt-and-mostly-pepper hair, wears a long-sleeved shirt with jeans, and when he sits, he taps lightly on the table, “Ok game, let’s do this.”

Before taking his MBA at the Kellogg School of Management in Northwestern University, he worked as a marketing manager in Unilever. He did a few years with T-Mobile in the US before moving back to the Philippines to raise his family. When news that Uber was planning to launch in Manila began to surface in early 2014, Laurence became interested. It is customary for Uber to look for a local to run the show, and it just so happened that he fit the bill. He set up a small office, not far from where we are now, heading a three-person team. He himself would run around the city, explaining the product to a clueless audience. He would do cold calls, pitches, presentations, and even went through briefing drivers himself.

“How do you convince or explain something to someone, when that someone hasn’t seen it before?” says Laurence. “And we tried a lot of things, but ultimately what works is, you download the app in your phone and try it yourself. [The] first time you use Uber is a magical experience, that whole idea that you push a button, you a get a car, and you get in, all without having to pull out your wallet. That ultimately sells itself, I think.”

Today, Uber has become one of the world’s most valuable startups. It is deployed in about 481 cities and 70 countries around the world.

Today, Uber has become one of the world’s most valuable startups. It is deployed in about 481 cities and 70 countries around the world. In Southeast Asia alone, it is safe to say that the app is available in all major metropolises. Which is the amazing part, says Laurence: the idea that you take the exact same app made in the US, apply it to another country, and it works just as well. Next to mathematics, and maybe, I don’t know, love—Uber seems to speak to a universal need. The role it plays in the world “[is] more similar than different,” says Laurence. “People just want to go from point A to point B. and I think that’s why the same idea works. I think the difference here is the receptiveness of becoming a passenger is very much there. People have been looking for a way where they can find a reliable and safe ride so that they don’t have to drive themselves, and Uber has been able to fill that need in the last couple of years here I think, more so than in any other cities.”

Out of the 70 countries where the app has taken off, the ride-hailing software has been made legal only in the Philippines. In Manila, more than hundreds of thousands of rides are being booked, and more than 20,000 drivers have signed up with the service. But the success of Uber has not been without its share of resistance. In the United States, Uber faces more than a hundred lawsuits; in countries like Italy, Spain, France, and Frankfurt, the uberPOP service (which allows non-professional licensed drivers to book rides) is banned; and in Jakarta, thousands of taxi drivers took to the streets in violent protest against the company. Here, in recent news, former DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya and the LTFRB chairman Winston Ginez are facing a graft complaint for allegedly “giving unwarranted benefit, advantages and preference” to transportation network companies like Uber by allowing them to operate without a franchise referred to as the Certificate of Public Convenience. The complaint was filed by Pascual “Jun” Magno of the group Angat Tsuper Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operator ng Pilipinas Genuine Organization Transport Coalition (Stop & Go) Inc., the same body that filed a petition to the Quezon City Regional Trial Court on December 2015, asking that the LTFRB stop accepting applications, as they were suffering lower incomes due to the increase in supply of Uber cars and the like.

The reliability of taxis as a mode of transportation in Manila has been a longstanding issue. If it isn’t about a shortage of cabs during rush hour, it’s their reputation that discourages use. Uber has offered an alternative that some commuters have long needed: security and efficiency.

Laurence comments that the idea of Uber competing with taxis is a misconception. He brings this up when I tell him that on my first day as a driver, I thought it was interesting that all of my riders knew how to drive, and that three out of four of them actually own cars. “There’s a misperception that this is like your typical pubic transportation. But in reality it’s a lot different… it’s actually for people who have a car that is not being used, it’s probably just sitting in their garage. So the idea is: if we could use those cars, other people don’t have to buy more cars, we just put those on the road and share the car, and see if people are willing to pay to share the car. And what we are finding is that people are willing to pay. Ultimately what Uber does is connect supply with demand.”

In a way it’s true: in the Philippines, an Uber service cannot really be in direct competition with a taxi, because the two services aren’t entirely the same. To be an Uber rider, one must own a credit card. Uber prides itself in being a cashless service—the luxury being that you don’t need to carry money to use it. You also need a smartphone with internet capabilities to be able to book a ride. And if you don’t have those, you don’t get to book an Uber. In the same way, cabs do not offer payment via credit card. So the people who do not have cash on hand, do not get on a taxi.

The reliability of taxis as a mode of transportation in Manila has been a longstanding issue. If it isn’t about a shortage of cabs during rush hour, it’s their reputation that discourages use. Uber has offered an alternative that some commuters have long needed: security and efficiency. Everything on Uber is on record—what time you get in, where you are going, the plate number of the car, who is driving it, what route you are taking and its distance. This is all part of the safety feature that people enjoy, which avoids cheating on the fare, taking longer unnecessary routes, and unpleasant encounters. A rider can rate the driver (going lower than a certain rating gets a driver questioned). And the benefit works both ways—have you ever vomited on a cab after one drunken stupor? I have, and got away with it. But now, drivers can rate their riders too. Here is a platform for both rider and driver to have a voice.

* * *

It's a manic Monday when I find myself behind the wheel of a tornado red Volkswagen Golf GTI—a hatchback with the heart of a sports car. Driving the Golf in the congested streets of Manila caught a few admiring glances. The Golf GTI is a performance beauty, set up with a touchscreen and an 8-speaker audio system to boot. But on this particular day, it is an UberX vehicle, and I am its driver.

Once online the Uber application, I get an alert for a rider waiting at the Fort Strip in Bonifacio Global City. There is no bidding process in matching a rider to a driver: the driver closest gets the alert, and drivers do not know where they are going until the trip is accepted. There are only 30 seconds to accept a request, or else it is considered ignored, and if you fail to accept too many bookings, a driver gets questioned. So I accept.

“Oh my god,” says my first rider giggling, as she steps into the car—amused by the fact that: a) the car is really nice and, b) I have no idea what I am doing. “Is this your first time Uber-ing?” she asks suspiciously when I struggle with the app. “Oh my god, do you seriously have a bottle of wine here,” she says, laughing. I do. I had placed a bottle of Shiraz on the pull-down armrest in the backseat and plastic cups—only for my guests of course. “Yes, our wine of the day is Shiraz,” I say jokingly. “Won’t you please have some?” Soon after, we realize that she has booked an UberPool car. And when the app alerts me to pick up my second pool passenger, my rider and I are at once, a mix of excited and apprehensive. My rider is chatty and revels in the fact that it’s my first time driving. “Girl, you’re so funny,” she says. “Girl, I hope the other rider is nice.” “Girl, I think you should fix your car first, like make it straight,” she says, when I literally stop in the middle of the road askew, because I am trying to fi gure out how to contact my second rider when we arrive at her pick-up point.

The second rider has arrived. I continue to fumble with the app, which is supposed to figure out whom of the two I should drop off fi rst. Technology is supposed to fi gure this out for me in a matter of seconds. My gracious first rider offers to help. “Where are you going ba?” she asks the second rider. “It’s her first day at Uber,” she adds, gesturing to me. “Girl I’m helping you, ah!” she announces.

So there are two strangers in the backseat of the hot hatch I don’t own, and we’ve all only just met, but we’ve already discussed whether the girl on the left should resign from her job. We picked her up at 3 p.m., where she bailed on work, and her boss just called asking where she went. I know where they work, where they’re headed, and where they live. And although they’ve expressed interest in my bottle of wine, none of them have opened it, much to my disappointment. My rides that day take me from the Fort to Manila to Makati then back to Manila again, all in a span of three hours. And when I decide that I want to take a piss and grab some food, I have earned, according to Uber, P525.10. Which is only P126.10 more than the bottle of wine in my backseat. So I turn off my engine, call it a night, and invite some friends for dinner. “Are you sure you want to go offline,” asks the Uber application. “You can earn more when you drive more.” I click yes, and have a swig of some of my own wine.

Over the span of two afternoons, I have driven for students, a girl working at a startup, someone in real estate, someone who did the night shift at a bank, a house helper who later told me that she “really wasn’t a house helper,” when I told her “that I wasn’t really an Uber driver,” and one who fell asleep. I had a conversation with a young medical student with boyish good looks, who didn’t hesitate when I told him to “seriously have some wine.” He had one glass when he started telling me about how he just found out he passed 3rd year medical school, and was now eligible to enter 4th year. He was open about his habitual partying since he joined a fraternity, where a lot of their social events involve copious amounts of alcohol, about that one time he got so drunk, blacked out, and woke up in the bathroom with vomit and blood all over the floor, and an IV needle stuck to his arm; that the other brothers were talking about Nelson Mandela’s death, that he thought he had something to do with Mandela’s death, only to find out that he was just really pissed-drunk, the vomit was his, the IV was administered by his pals to re-hydrate his body, and the blood was from when he moved around during the insertion of the needle. On his second glass of wine, he tells me that when he joined a fraternity, he had no clue about what a fraternity was. He grew up in Bacolod, and that when someone invited him on the first day of class to “join a fraternity,” he figured, “why not?” On the first day of their initiation, there were about ten neophytes. The next few days, they were two. And by the end of the week, it was just him. “You made it that far without questioning yourself,” I ask, peeking at my rear-view mirror. “I questioned myself every day of my life,” he said, completely blindsided by the reality of the situation. “But… I’m just not the type to quit,” he says. “I’ll try not to finish your bottle, because I really can,” he told me later on, and that “maybe this is your tactic to get your passengers drunk so they can open up to you.”

I tell him, “Actually, I’m not really an Uber driver… I’m a killer,” I try to say with a straight face. He responds, “okay…” before I interject, “no, I’m kidding.” He lets out a sigh. “I honestly got scared,” he says, wondering if maybe this was his last breathing moment… inside an UberX.

But at the heart of it all, in the backbone of a technologically advanced system as this, it is still the human touch that ties everything together. There is human passion driving to make it work, make it better.

But my most memorable passenger is one whom I picked up in Taytay, Rizal—a skinny middle-aged lady with thick-rimmed glasses, and an upfront talkative personality. As soon as she got in, she didn’t hesitate to reach for the wine. But no more than one glass because, “baka malasing ako,” she says. As the trip progressed, she shared with me parts of her life that I found equally astounding and fantastical: of having trained with the PNP but needing to leave because she was sickly; going abroad and working as illegal house help in South Korea; of her farm in Nueva Ecija with eight functioning solar panels; and falling victim to a bus hostage taking in Manila, which was televised. (She said she managed to escape when she elbowed one of the men, and that she winked at the driver before performing this heroic stunt.) She pulled out a bottle of El Shaddai menthol oil and told me to rub it on my throat to relieve my cough—we did this in the middle of Katipunan traffi c. She found it amusing that I was a girl, that my skirt was a bit too short, and commented that I should learn a little bit of self-defense. “Ako, marunong ako ng konting jiu-jitsu tsaka taekwondo.”

The transience of driving an Uber interaction is interesting. It almost feels like a mobile confessional.

“Sige ano po yung gagawin ko kung may mag-rape sakin?” I ask, looking to my mirror for her response. “Isiko mo dito,” She says, pointing to the bottom of her chin.

The transience of driving an Uber interaction is interesting. It almost feels like a mobile confessional: a place where someone can share things to a complete stranger, knowing that whatever is said inside the car wouldn’t matter, because the two of you don’t know each other, don’t really care about what happens after, and will never meet again.

* * *

Because of Uber, consumer behavior has completely changed, regulations and policies are adopting the system.

Things like Waze navigate you through traffic, and gadgets like dash cams are depended upon as watchdogs. It seems the reigning star of the show today is the computer, an artificial intelligence that is stepping in for jobs people used to do.

But at the heart of it all, in the backbone of a technologically advanced system as this, it is still the human touch that ties everything together. There is human passion driving to make it work, make it better. “I think the word for it is ‘super pumped,’” says Laurence about leading his team of young workers. “We’re really super pumped about this. It’s part of our DNA that everything seems to be on overdrive because we are very passionate about what we are doing, to be honest. To many people, Uber is just an app. But for us, it’s part of a solution. I don’t think there’s a lot of opportunities where you’re in a situation and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can actually see that you can make a dent to fix a problem that everybody gave up on.”

What is a five-star rating made of? Dedication, delicate human interaction, kindness from one person to another, openness, trust…and a little help from a bottle of Shiraz doesn’t hurt.

This piece originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.

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Kara Ortiga
Kara Ortiga is a writer and the editor in chief of Supreme.
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