Credit: BeyondDC

Something has changed. 

With Uber’s announcement this week that it is now permitting teenagers to open Uber accounts, we have to guess that either teenagers have changed in the decade since Uber launched, or Uber has changed. I am guessing it’s Uber. 

In its early years, Uber offered a fulsome list of reasons why it did not offer account privileges to consumers under 18 years of age. These included legal considerations (some jurisdictions have laws and regulations that impose age restrictions on transportation services); safety concerns (including concerns about the ability of young passengers to navigate unfamiliar areas, and make appropriate decisions); liability and responsibility (allowing underage individuals to use the service without adult supervision could raise questions about Uber’s liability or duty of care towards these passengers); and driver comfort and discretion (many drivers feel uncomfortable transporting unaccompanied teenagers). 

That was then; it appears now that the legal, safety, and liability issues must have been resolved (drivers still generally dislike driving unaccompanied teens). 

At its May 17th “Go-Get Family Style” launch event, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi stressed the company’s safety features which include dialling 911 in case of emergency (although, Uber’s Terms explain “In the event that you need to place a 911 emergency call on behalf of your teen, the dispatcher you’re connected with will see your location, not your teen’s.” How would that help?)

As a parent and a consumer, the sheer number of sexual assaults by Uber drivers in Canada and around the globe set alarm bells ringing. 

As the publisher of Taxi News, I cringe recalling comments from an Uber driver who laughed that he didn’t drive for the money: “It’s to meet chicks, man, the chicks you meet at closing time!” 

Only a few weeks ago, the Toronto Star reported that “Police are looking for an Uber driver who allegedly sexually assaulted a female passenger, then used her phone to give himself a tip and a positive review while driving her in Vaughan on Sunday.” 

I vividly recall that in September 2015, police appealed to the public to locate an Uber driver in a sexual assault investigation. For all the technology and peace of mind theoretically offered in Uber’s high-tech app system, the driver had vanished and police were using old-fashioned news media to distribute a grainy photo on the evening news. 

As recently as 2022, Uber’s own U.S. Safety Report showed that Uber received 3,824 reports across the five most severe categories of sexual assault and misconduct.

Anyway, onward and upward. I have friends who use Uber and who may think Teen accounts are great progress (even after one shared that her driver turned up at her front door hours after dropping her off to tell her he “had feelings for her.”) These folks are prime prospects market for Uber’s new campaign which will ironically cannibalize the public transit systems young people have traditionally relied upon. 

“Uber has to find new markets,” explains Marc Andre Way, president of the Canadian Taxi Association.  “Uber’s per-ride payments to the City of Ottawa are a fraction of what they were at their peak, which means ridership is really down. 

“Going after teen riders will have very little impact on Taxis but will take yet another chunk of the transit ridership municipalities need to support their systems.” 

(Dr. James Cooper’s study for the City of Toronto found that 49% of Uber riders came from transit systems, while only 5% came from private cars.) 

It’s possible that the legal, safety, and liability issues that prevented Uber from offering Teen accounts them a decade ago have been resolved. It’s also possible that Uber, which has never yet generated a profit, has simply decided that the benefit of adding a new market segment with Teen accounts is greater than the risk of offering them.

Parents will also be making a risk/benefit assessment. They have a lot more to lose.