NEW DEHLI — Ride-hailing simply wasn’t going to get Sanjana Vijayshankar to work this morning. The advertising professional, who lives in Bangalore, received a call from her Uber driver inquiring what her destination was. Drivers normally don’t see the destination until they pick up their passenger and the ride has begun, but her driver called in advance and decided, eventually, that her office — 10 miles away — was too far. After they hung up, Vijayshankar confusedly watched the car driving around aimlessly on the Uber app for 20 minutes before the driver suddenly canceled the ride. She booked another cab, then another, then another, she told BuzzFeed News. Altogether six cabs, from Uber and its largest Indian rival, Ola, canceled on her back to back that day.
Finally, Vijayshankar took a bus to work, arriving nearly two hours late.
“Even dates haven’t ghosted me this bad,” she joked in a tweet.
Many other passengers in India, a large and important market for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Ola, are complaining on social media about similar experiences of being quizzed about their destination before a driver cancels the ride, or watching a car circle around aimlessly, forcing them to cancel and incur a penalty.
The problem has gotten so bad that last week the New Delhi government proposed a policy that will slap ride hailing drivers with a Rs. 25,000 ($340) penalty for out-of-turn cancellations. “There is an urgent need to frame rules to regulate the operation of these cab services,” a transport department official told the Times of India.
Uber declined to comment on the proposed regulations, and an Ola spokesperson said it was “too early” to comment on them.
“I depend heavily on ride-hailing services to get to work,” said Aniruddha Kamat, a software engineer based in Mumbai. “But I’ve been so pissed at them for the last few months. They’re no better than autorickshaws,” he said, whose drivers are notorious for subjecting passengers to their whims.
An Uber spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that in addition to evaluating drivers by their star rating, “We also keep a close watch on their trip acceptance and cancellation rates. While we do understand that there are cases when driver partners are compelled to cancel trips owing to unforeseen reasons, we encourage them to minimize cancellations for the reliability of the system.” Uber did not respond to specific questions about its cancellation policy.
An Ola spokesperson told BuzzFeed news that the company only levies a cancelation charge under "certain conditions" to compensate drivers for time, effort, and fuel spent in order to reach the pickup location. "Our robust systems in place ensure proper adjudication of scenarios is undertaken before levying cancellation charges so neither the customer nor the driver-partner is unfairly treated," they said.
More than a dozen Uber and Ola drivers who BuzzFeed News spoke to in major Indian cities said that they have their reasons to cancel. The most common one: They don’t want long rides.
“The longer a ride, the less return on my time I get,” said Santosh Kumar, who has been driving an Uber in Noida, a satellite city near New Delhi, for the last two years. “After Uber’s commission and what the gas costs me, longer rides often end up being way more expensive for me,” he said.
Incomes of ride-hailing drivers in India have plummeted in recent years as both Uber and OIa have started focusing on profitability and cut back on large monetary incentives they once gave drivers to lure them to the platforms. Uber and Ola drivers in India reportedly make less than $300 a month. These days, said Kumar, he makes more money by quickly finishing a handful of short rides than accepting a long one.
Balwant Sahay, who has driven for both Uber and Ola for the last few years, says he cancels when the platforms give him short rides with pickups miles away. “Sometimes, I’ve gotten pickup requests from passengers more than 10 miles away,” he said, “so I call ahead and make sure that their ride is long enough for it to be worth my while. I can’t drive 10 miles to pick up someone only to drop them 2 miles away.”
Drivers who want to get rides only in a specific direction — when they're going home at the end of a day, for instance — can use a "Go Home" button built in to both the Uber and Ola apps that lets them do precisely that. But multiple drivers told BuzzFeed News they have been unable to use the feature on Uber during peak hours in the mornings and evenings, and also when they’re in areas with lots of demand. Uber declined to comment.
“It’s a tough choice, especially at the end of the day when I’ve been driving for 14 hours and just want to go home,” said Hariprasad Makwana, an Uber driver from New Delhi. “I’d prefer to be in an area with high demand, because there’s surge pricing and I make more money. But chances are high that my passenger wants to go in the complete opposite direction.”
Some Uber and Ola drivers riding in New Delhi, a city that shares borders with the states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, told BuzzFeed News that they cancel all rides that would require them to cross state borders because they can’t afford the toll they’re required to pay when they do.
Drivers’ ratings take a hit for canceling rides, which means they get fewer requests for pickups, but an Ola spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that a driver would have to have a made a “series of cancellations” for their rating to be affected. “Merely canceling one ride would not affect their rating” and Ola drivers aren’t charged a monetary penalty for canceling. Uber declined to comment.
“I get 20 rides a day,” said Ramesh Babu, an Ola driver based in Mumbai. “Even if I cancel five and have my rating docked, the other 15 riders will usually give me a good rating. I don’t really care that much about it.”
Still, if their cancelations become excessive, drivers could face deactivation. Drivers said Uber and Ola deactivated their accounts if they canceled too many rides. Both platforms declined to clarify how many cancellations they permit. An Ola spokesperson said that the company makes a decision based on a driver’s rate of cancellation over time.
Drivers said getting reactivated requires heading over to Uber’s and Ola’s offices and providing explanations for why they canceled rides. “It wasn’t a big deal, though,” said Prabhudayal Verma, an Uber driver based in Noida. “I made up an excuse about how my car had broken down at one point, and about having a family emergency at another, and they bought it and brought me back on pretty quickly.”
“They tell us to not cancel rides in our trainings when we first sign up,” said Mukesh Kumar Sharma, an Uber driver from New Delhi, “but honestly, it’s not something anyone — either drivers or the companies — take very seriously.”
Passengers, meanwhile, are waiting for improvements from either platform. A Bangalore-based venture capitalist who did not wish to be named told BuzzFeed News he now books both an Uber and an Ola each time he wants to get somewhere. “Chances are that one of them will cancel,” he said,” but hopefully, the other one will show up — if luck is on my side.”