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Uber won me over with its free rides in Seoul

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Uber has been causing controversy in Seoul, South Korea, since it launched in October of last year. The local government is claiming that UberX vehicles are not legally authorized taxis, even inciting locals to tattle on Uber drivers who could then be fined 1 million KRW (about $900). In response, Uber now allows free travel on up to 30 UberX journeys, costing 30,000KRW (about $27) or less. No end date for the free promotion has been announced.

The local government claims that Uber drivers are breaking the law by operating as an illegal taxi service. Uber representative In-Ang Park tells The Verge that the company wants to work with the local government to find an amicable solution. "Uber launched UberX with the expectation that Seoul would be supportive and legalize ride-sharing in keeping with its sharing economy vision," said Park. "But the reality was not what we expected, and so we need to take active steps to work with the city to find a way forward. We hope the city will accept this move."

"Switching off the fare brings us within the law."

Uber hopes the decision to make UberX rides free will keep them in line with regulations defined by Seoul’s local authorities. "The important thing," says Park, "is that switching off the fare brings us within the law. We are continuing the dialogue with the city on a future path." Park said that the company will continue paying drivers and emphasized that it will also cover their expenses in full.

Even before I had heard about the free promotion, I received a 20,000KRW (about $20) credit on Uber for my first ride. I wasn’t sure, but a friend strongly suggested that I at least try it. After all, it would be deducted from my credit, and it had just started to rain. I used the Uber app to reserve an UberX vehicle near me and waited five minutes for it to arrive. Normally I can just walk outside and hail a cab, but since it was raining I had to call a taxi company which takes longer. And if no taxis are available, I have to call another company. It's not much more complicated but sometimes it takes longer.

uber free seoul
My receipt for 0KRW

The ride was pleasant as the driver didn’t talk at all, letting me ride in silence with rain drops gently knocking on the windows of the back seat. As I hopped off at my destination, I was surprised to see that the price of the ride was 0KRW. I checked my credit, and the 20,000KRW was still there.

I hurried inside a nearby cafe and opened Twitter to see my friends tweeting about free UberX rides. My free journey occurred around five hours before the promotion was even supposed to start, so out of curiosity I took another UberX ride back home to talk with another Uber driver.

On my return journey I had a short conversation with the driver regarding what the promotion meant for him in terms of income. He told me that Uber drivers normally get paid more than a regular taxi job in Seoul, and during the promotion they will be paid an incentive on top of their regular payment.

I will probably reserve an UberX ride from now on

As a first-time Uber customer, everything was perfect. Maybe I was lucky to have a car nearby where I was, but I was able to get both UberX rides in less than five minutes. I didn’t have to rummage through my bag to look for my wallet and wait for the driver to take my credit card, swipe it, and then wait for the receipt. I only had to say goodbye.

In the end it’s up to the passengers to decide if ride-sharing is useful or not. Based on my experience as a taxi addict, I will probably reserve an UberX ride from now on. Of course, that's exactly the kind of reaction this campaign is meant to inspire, making it that much harder for the government to ignore the people of Seoul and shut Uber down.