- After using taxis and ride-hailing services like Uber in dozens of countries, I’ve become convinced that ride-hailing apps are here to stay, with or without regulation, for a simple reason: They serve a need.
- While taxi services in major US cities are usually reliable and efficient, taxi services in many foreign countries are unreliable, riddled with scams, or frequently price-gouge both tourists and locals.
- In countries like Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, using ride-hailing services over taxis can be a matter of safety, while in China, I found that I could rarely get a taxi to stop for me because drivers didn’t want to navigate the language barrier.
Last Saturday, I left the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece about an hour before sunset. A local had recommended that I head to Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in the city and about a 10-minute drive away, to watch the sunset descend on the Acropolis.
For a moment, I had the internal debate that many urban millennials have everyday: Do I call an Uber or hail a taxi? I spotted four or five taxis lined up on the curb in front of the museum and thought “Why not?”
I went up to the first cab in the line and told the driver where I was headed. He stepped out of his car and began trying to negotiate a price with me. It’s a flat fee to Lycabettus, he said, telling me that I had two options: either pay 16 Euros for him to drive me to the top of the hill or pay him 8 Euros for him to take me to the cable car. The cable car fee (for two) plus the taxi ride would end up being 18 Euros.
When I told him I wasn’t negotiating and that I wanted to pay the metered price, he refused and walked over to another couple looking for a ride. Infuriated, I walked away from the taxi line.
At the next corner, I opened Uber, ordered a taxi – all cars on Uber in Greece are metered taxis – and got one five minutes later. The driver took me to the top of Lycabettus Hill and it cost me 6 Euros on the meter.
I understand the downsides of ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft, and Grab. When I was in Bali, Indonesia I saw first-hand how ride-hailing services are upsetting centuries of tradition. Living in New York City, I talked nearly everyday with Uber drivers who work 12-hour days to make a living.
The New York City government recently undertook measures to require ride-hailing apps to pay drivers minimum wage and prohibit the apps from hiring new employees for a year will have. The effect of these measures remains to be seen, but it’s likely a good thing that these services are being more heavily regulated.
As Business Insider’s Josh Barro recently wrote, Uber may call its drivers “driver-partners” but “what they do looks a lot like being an employee without the legal protections that come from a payroll-employee relationship.”
But for anyone still thinking that governments can regulate Uber and its competitors out of existence, interactions like the one I had in Greece have convinced me that they are sorely mistaken.
Taxi services outside the US are often unreliable and riddled with scams
In nearly every country I’ve travelled to, I’ve had one or more interactions with a taxi driver like the one I described above that would have been easily avoided with the transparency and accountability provided by a ride-hailing app. In many places, it was far worse.
When I was in China in April, I couldn’t get a taxi to stop for me. The drivers had no interest in trying to figure out where I wanted to go based on my bad Mandarin and the address I had listed in BaiduMaps. The only way for me to get a ride was to call taxis using Didi Chuxing, the Chinese Uber-equivalent, so they didn’t have to interact with me in English/Mandarin.
If you are trying to hail a cab in Shanghai or Beijing at a particularly busy time – say, rush hour or when the bars close – the drivers will only take you if you accept some exorbitant flat fee that they offer. Consider it their own kind of surge pricing.
Meanwhile, two firefighters from Georgia I met in China told me how upon arriving in the airport in Beijing a taxi driver showed them a laminated rate card for rides to the city – a classic scam in China. Not knowing any better, they went with the driver. The ride to the center of Beijing cost them the equivalent of $US100; a week earlier it cost me $US20 in a metered taxi that I called via Didi Chuxing.
When I visited Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico, locals told me to never hail taxis. All over Buenos Aires, Medellin, and Mexico City, there are fake taxis with fake meters, taxis that will drive foreigners in circles, and, occasionally, taxis that will actually kidnap you for ransom.
In Buenos Aires, I once made the mistake of hailing a taxi with a rigged meter. The ride cost me four times what it should as he drove me in circles around the city.
Using ride-hailing apps isn’t just about saving money
Using ride-hailing services in those places isn’t a question of the ethics of ride-hailing’s business model, but one of survival. If you plan on getting around, using a ride-hailing app can literally save your life.
The longer I travel, and the more people I talk to in other countries, the more apparent it has become to me how necessary ride-hailing services are and how many long-standing problems with taxi services they are solving, from price-gouging, opaque pricing, and language barriers to availability in far-flung parts of a city.
In a number of countries I’ve visited – Russia, Greece, etc – ride-hailing apps frequently operate as booking services for taxis. You still pay the metered rate, but you just pay through the app, which also keeps a record of the driver and the ride. Even in those cases, I would still use the app every time. It’s not about saving money, but consistency and accountability.
I can understand why taxi drivers are pissed off, particularly in major cities like New York, London, Tokyo, or Paris, where the taxi services are established, extensive, and reliable. In those cities, I can see, from taxi drivers’ perspectives, how Uber or Lyft or Grab makes driving seem like a hyper-competitive race to the bottom.
But in many cities and countries where taxi services are unreliable or riddled with scams, ride-hailing services are a critical tool to level the playing field for locals and travellers. And for that reason alone, they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
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