Internet & Tech

Troubled relaunch

Why Didi faced a backlash from female users


Liu: acknowledges there’s a hitch

A survey in the China Youth Daily found that over 50% of women had experienced some kind of inappropriate touching while using buses and trains.

The problem led to experiments with women-only buses and train carriages. And last week Didi Chuxing offered its own solution for safer travel for female customers of its shared-car service Hitch. Women, it said, would simply be prevented from booking rides after 8pm.

Inevitably, much of the response was an angry one. “Why should women be inconvenienced as result of male abuse?” one woman asked. “This is discrimination,” another fumed, noting that under the revised Didi rules men were permitted to use the service till 11pm.

As readers will remember, Didi Hitch was suspended in August 2018 after two female passengers were raped and murdered within a few months of each other. The service was then relaunched in a small group of cities last week after a year of testing of safety features.

When the two women were killed last year it emerged that many of Hitch’s safety protocols didn’t actually work. For instance, one of the murderers had registered as a driver with his father’s driving licence, but had still managed to pass the facial recognition test. It also became clear that some male drivers were using a customer rating function on the app to leave remarks about female passengers’ looks.

At the relaunch of Hitch, Didi’s founder Cheng Wei said the company had spent 300 days trying to “optimise” the app’s safety features. But he also warned there would always be risks in booking travel of this type.“We can’t guarantee 100% safety, but we can guarantee 100% efforts,” he said.

Hitch was once the most profitable service in the Didi stable because the platform did little more than act as middleman – matching drivers to passengers and taking a cut of the fares. Didi lost a staggering Rmb10.9 billion ($1.55 billion) last year, with Jiemian estimating that Hitch had previously contributed about Rmb900 million a year in profit.

That helps to explain why Didi is so desperate to get Hitch up and running again. But the relaunch was dealt an immediate blow this week when a Didi driver stabbed a passenger who had demanded that he drive faster. It led to changes to the female-only curfew, with Hitch making the 8pm cut-off apply for both sexes.

Didi also released a separate statement explaining that spikes in sex-related complaints from female users during evening and late-night operating hours had prompted the different gender-based restrictions. The company also apologised, saying: “Prior to announcing the plan, we did not carry out a public appraisal and discussion of this rule and were unable to fully listen to feedback from all sides. At the same time, we express our deep apologies for troubling everyone with our insufficient consideration and poor communication.”

Jean Liu, Didi’s president, took to weibo to apologise personally. “As a female manager I also see that Hitch is unfriendly to female users… please give us more time to evaluate its safety,” she wrote.

Male customers were less than happy that they had been added to the curfew, however. When female users reminded them that they had been saying that the curfew wasn’t a big deal when it applied to women, some men lashed back by asking if they wanted to see their retirement rules changed to match the male pensionable age of 65.

Others took a more conciliatory view. “The women-only curfew casts women as victims and men as predators. Men can attack men too. Good safety measures will protect everyone,” said another.

Didi says that services on Hitch have only resumed on a trial basis and that it welcomes public feedback. The Ministry of Transport has also vowed to be vigilant on passenger safety, and Didi and seven of its competitors were informed this week that the “safety rectification” campaign was ongoing.

Ride sharing is a good way of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, but the companies involved “must strictly abide by the bottom line of safety” the ministry warned.

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