Uber embarks on unconventional strategy

In a small coastal town on the Sea of Japan, Uber Technologies Inc. is deploying an unusual strategy.

The average age of an Uber passenger in Kyoto’s Tangocho district, population 5,914, is at least 70. Even stranger: Most of these elderly customers don’t own a smartphone, so they have to call someone with a device to summon rides. This isn’t the typical target market. Go to any big city around the world with millennials glued to their gadgets, and chances are Uber will be there.

Uber is finding modest success in the hamlet, once known for supplying fabric to kimono tailors in the ancient capital, a three-hour bus ride away. Decades of depopulation have left Tangocho with mostly older folks. There’s only one bus route, which weaves its way through the mountains every hour, making it difficult for residents to shop and take care of basic errands.

“Uber is becoming more important for me,” said Miyoshi Azuma, 84, whose husband passed away in February and who is trying to decide whether to renew her driving license in November. “My sons tell me to drive carefully. It would be terrible if I caused an accident at this age.”

Tangocho is one of only two places in Japan where Uber’s app can be used to hail a ride from a part-time driver — a service known as UberX in the U.S. and UberPop in Europe. That’s because ride-sharing services are only allowed in locations too small to support public transport. In the rest of Japan, only licensed drivers in black cars or taxis are allowed to ferry passengers, leaving Uber with a limited car-on-demand operation in Tokyo that’s only a fraction of what you might see in San Francisco, London or Mexico City.

Uber is full of surprises these days. Since the San Francisco-based startup got off the ground in 2009, hard-charging Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick has rarely retreated from a fight, battling taxi franchises and taking on competitors and local governments.

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