Motorways and Uber Eats

Motorways and Uber Eats

It has been a tough 12 months for the hospitality industry.

Caterers in every corner of the country have had to make tough decisions and evaluate how they go about their business. I wouldn't want to ridicule that.

I believe I'm right in saying that all three of the major operators have now experimented with having some-sort of relationship with Uber Eats, in addition to stand-alone stores like McDonald's and Costa also putting their motorway stores on there.

As a historian, I'm very aware that I have a natural vendetta against new-fangled food delivery services, but I accept that they fulfill a role and I have no objection in principle to motorway service areas making a bit of money on the side. You could even class it as 'supporting the community'.

I should also say that I'm not suggesting anybody is currently doing anything wrong. What I am saying is that, if the relationship between motorways and Uber Eats is going to grow closer, then I have some concerns.

Many motorway service areas have a secret connection to the local road network. Many of those require special training to be able to use them safely: they are often hidden and difficult to find; they are often littered with potholes and debris; they almost never have street lighting; and they usually have blind bends that unauthorised locals take way too fast.

Most worrying of all, as these roads were designed for staff who know the procedures, reaching them sometimes requires driving the wrong way down a one-way road, and/or taking an unorthodox and convoluted route around the car park.

Food delivery drivers are not exactly known for their high driving standards. It's job that's often taken up by inexperienced young people, and they will earn more if they drive as quickly as possible. We don't want couriers using these narrow and complicated access roads, and we certainly don't want them doing it in great numbers.

The access road to one service station that is already on Uber Eats - is it suitable for food deliveries?

Strictly speaking, those access roads are contractually obliged to be used by staff and delivery services only. Food couriers are neither, and they don't really fall into the third permitted category of "emergency services" either. So I suppose operators could take the position of "we never said you could use that road", and wash their hands of the danger.

That stance would create new issues. Food couriers are under time pressure, and they're not going to ignore a short-cut, especially one that they haven't been told they can't use. If they get fined, neither the operator nor the employer is going to bail them out. Given how notoriously unreliable the ANPR cameras are, I wouldn't rule out somebody who visits twice in one evening being wrongly charged for breaking the parking rules either.

So let's say they're banned from using the rear access road, and they know that they are banned. That creates another problem.

Uber Eats reimburses its drivers based on distance as the crow flies. Anybody who lives in an area with a very windy road will know this: Uber Eats claims that my local coffee shop has a 1 minute delivery time, but by the time you've actually made it out the retail park, crossed the river and gone around the huge roundabout, it's actually nearer six minutes. The driver loses out as a result.

Motorways are difficult to get on and off. That's the whole point of them. A customer could be right next door to the service station, but by the time you've actually driven up to the next junction, joined the motorway, stopped at the service station, driven down to the next junction, turned around, gone back up the motorway, and then come off at your original junction... that could be 15 miles! The app will need to factor that in.

You are not supposed to drive or cycle down this service station's access road - but how will your food courier know?

Then we come to the really juicy problem. Bikes.

Food delivery services only use bikes and mopeds in urban areas where most of your customers live local. Some motorway service areas are in urban areas. Newport Pagnell, to name one very busy example, has houses all around it.

If their next pick-up is on the motorway, then be it through ignorance or laziness, sooner or later they are going to try to cycle on the motorway.

In fact people in Britain have already shared pictures of Uber Eats cyclists using motorways as short-cuts. That's without service stations inadvertently encouraging them.

It's not just motorways either - service stations on A-roads are often extremely dangerous to cycle to, and technically it's not illegal to cycle on a dangerous A-road so anybody who follows the rules literally will have no reason not to do it.

What could be worse than somebody trying to cycle on a motorway or busy A-road? Probably somebody trying to cycle down the previously-mentioned local access roads, where there would be a very high risk of them hitting a pothole, being struck by a vehicle, or being met by somebody hiding in the shadows. Food delivery cyclists have to deal with a lot of hassle even in city centres, and it will be even worse if you're sending them down little-known back lanes.

Even if by some miracle the cyclist is able to make it safely to the service station to collect the Big Mac, they will of course find that there is nowhere safe to leave their bike, because these places weren't designed for bikes! So they will go inside and there is a good chance the bike will be in somebody's van when they get back to it.

All of these points are actually just potential teething issues that could easily be ironed out with a bit of common sense and concern for the underpaid people who are doing the heavy lifting.

For now, these are hopefully just hypothetical scenarios that will be easily avoided thanks to good conscience. But sometimes in business, you can't take good conscience for granted, and you need to call them out before it happens.

The idea of service stations providing additional functions 'on the side' is exactly what was envisaged when the government removed all the regulations in 2013. It doesn't need to be a problem, so long as those functions are fully thought out and factored in to the design of the place.

Several new service stations are going to have new cycle paths built to serve them. Great idea! Provide safe access for food couriers and for staff, some of whom will want to cycle.

In the meantime, if you really have an urge to turn service stations into food delivery places, why not employee somebody to deliver food to the on-site hotels? That way your customers get the benefit of food delivery, and nobody has to leave the site!

© 2023 Johnathan Randall

Tedious about the author bit

Travel historian, travel reporter, and radio producer. I love the places people pass through along their journey.

I research and write about how our need to get around continues to shape our world through roads, railways, airports and whole new towns.

My thoughts and/or research have been published by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, Mail Online and The Independent (detail).

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Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.

© 2023 Johnathan Randall.