Ride-sharing apps for urban refugees: easing or exacerbating a digital transport disadvantage?

Martin-Shields, Charles
External Publications (2022)

in: Trialog (140/141), 58-62


For many urban refugees, the legal grey areas that often define their status in host countries mean living with varying levels of exclusion from urban resources. One of the key resources that urban refugees in developing countries acutely need, but are often either excluded from or priced out of, is transportation. This paper uses the concept of transportation disadvantage to understand how urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur lack sufficient transport options, and whether smartphone-based ride-sharing apps can improve refugees’ access to timely, fairly priced transportation. Almost all administrative activities that refugees engage in involve visiting an office, often for indeterminate amounts of time, far from where they live. Thus, flexible transportation is central to their daily lives. An innovation in urban transportation that could alleviate refugees’ transportation disadvantage are ride-sharing apps, which allow people with mobile phones to ‘hail’ drivers from their phone, set pick-up and drop-off locations, and have the price of the trip set in advance. While these apps, such as Uber, Grab, and Lyft, have introduced problems of congestion to cities, they also have the potential to serve an inclusive role for groups like urban refugees, who due to their legal status often face price discrimination from taxi drivers and do not live in areas with ready access to affordable public transportation. Drawing on fieldwork in Kuala Lumpur, this article evaluates the potential of ride sharing for making refugees’ daily lives easier while highlighting the policies that exclude them from using the ride-sharing app Grab. Based on that, I argue that technological innovation in transportation provision cannot improve urban refugees’ lives without corresponding policies that encourage greater social and political inclusion.

About the author

Martin-Shields, Charles

Political Science


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