It was close to midnight and I was minutes away from missing my plane at the Cali airport in Colombia. The dark rural road forked and the sign for the airport pointed in the opposite direction my Uber driver had taken. He said it was a shortcut. Catching my plane suddenly became the least of my worries.
My Uber bubble was burst. Perhaps the ride-hailing service wasn't the reliable, safe transit option I had thought it was and I was about to be kidnapped, raped, or even murdered. Then I saw the bright glow of the airport towers. My heart landed back in my chest when I realized we really had just taken a shortcut.
But were my fears unfounded?
Just a week later a woman was allegedly raped in an Uber in Mexico City. The driver is now behind bars, facing charges of rape and robbery. A similar incident occurred in Delhi, India, in December 2014 and actually led to Uber temporarily suspending its service there until it modified its security regulations. In London, 32 rape or sexual assault claims have been filed against Uber drivers in the last year, according to official figures.
The website whosdrivingyou.org compiles information on safety incidents involving ride sharing applications and links to more than 125 incidents involving sexual assault over the past three years. An information leak obtained by Buzzfeed in March showed that in Uber's database, a search query for "sexual assault" yielded 6,160 customer support tickets; a search for "rape" yielded 5,827. Uber rebutted these claims when contacted by Buzzfeed.
"We take incidents like this very seriously, and our thoughts are with the victim and her family," Uber stated in an e-mail response to my request for comment on the Mexico City rape case. "We immediately removed this driver-partner from the platform and we are working closely with law enforcement to assist their investigation." Uber did not respond to my other questions regarding background checks and safety measures in time for publication.
Transit and security is no joke in Mexico City, where I live and where women are constantly subject to groping and sexual assault in the city's overcrowded subway wagons. The city introduced gender-segregated cars sixteen years ago, but it still hasn't resolved the problem. When a recent hashtag #MiPrimerAcoso, which translates to My First Harassment, went viral in Mexico dozens of women shared their stories of men grinding up against them in the subway, masturbating in front of them, and even cumming on their legs.
Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world that has legally authorized Uber. And the most recent incident of a woman allegedly raped in an Uber makes it all the more clear: Women are now left with no safe transit options in the capital city of nearly 9 million people.
The government-run Women's Institute estimates that between 300 and 350 women suffer some form of sexual aggression in the public transit every day. More than 95 percent of crimes are not investigated in Mexico and women say they often fear bringing complaints about sexual violence to the authorities. Last month, thousands of women took to the streets in protest of the violence they suffer daily, many focusing on harassment they are subject to in public places.
Taxis have a long standing reputation in Mexico and other Latin American countries for being vehicles for express kidnapping, where riders at gunpoint are brought to ATMs to take out as much cash as they can and then are left in an unknown location. Stories of women being sexually assaulted in taxis, especially those hailed in the street, are common in Mexico City in particular.
"He told me my middle school uniform turned him on and immediately jumped in the backseat. I kicked and hit him and got out," Brenda Burgoa, a 36-year-old migrant rights activist living in Mexico City, told me about a taxi driver's attack on her when she was 13. She says since that moment she only takes registered taxis or Uber. "I know who picks me up, their license plate, even their damn photo. It does freak me out that they have all my personal info saved, my common routes, [and] telephone," added Burgoa.
In debates in the comment sections of online articles about the recent Mexico City rape case, readers wrote that the passenger (whose identity has been concealed and was thus unable to be reached for comment) probably did it just to "discredit Uber" and blamed her for being drunk and therefore guilty for what happened to her. "How is she sure that she didn't have relations with someone in the bar and then when she was in the car blamed it on the poor Uber driver," stated one comment on the website of the news outlet UNOTV.
"Now I will only take Uber as a last ditch option"
Ivonne Piedras, an NGO worker who lives in Mexico City, said she frequently rode in Uber until she had a bizarre incident. "One time the Uber driver was about to arrive and told me that he was bringing a man he was training with him even though it was 9 PM at night. I immediately cancelled the trip," Piedras said, adding that this combined with the rape incident has made her wary of the private transit service.
The lingering threat of sexual violence women worldwide face in transit, be it in an Uber or traditional taxi, is spurring safer alternatives like SafeHer, which is set to launch internationally in the fall as a ride service "driven by women, for women and children passengers."
"As a former Uber driver myself I picked up thousands of women who had horrible stories and thought that there had to be a better way," said SafeHer founder Michael Pelletz. He said the plan is to roll out the service in eight countries, and that SafeHer is currently working with Mexican politicians to ensure that there will be stronger background checks of their drivers. "We have signed up drivers in Mexico City," Pelletz added. "We have had a tremendous response from all parts of Mexico, especially in Mexico City."
In the meantime it is likely that thousands of women in Mexico, myself included, will continue to take Uber as the safest option we got.
"Now I will only take Uber as a last ditch option," said Piedras, who is still very wary of the service. "And if I do it, I will be in constant communication with someone to let them know where I am until I make it to my destination."
Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.
Follow Andalusia Knoll Soloff on twitter @andalalucha.