The big debate: Taxis

By bogotapost April 2, 2015

Bogota Taxis, Dia Sin Taxi Mark Kennedy speaks to a taxi driver, and the organiser of the Día Sin Taxi campaign, to get their perspectives on the city’s latest transport row

This month, the Association of Taxi Drivers and Owners threatened to bring Bogota to a standstill by blocking all major roads with a sea of yellow cabs. They say rising costs, competition from an “illegal” car service and planned social security legislation are making it harder for drivers to make ends meet. But an 11th-hour agreement between the Ministry of Transportation and taxi representatives thwarted what would have been a massive strike on March 16, and the two side are currently in negotiations.

A significant number of Bogotanos have little sympathy for cab drivers. They say cabbies are known to routinely overcharge passengers, arbitrarily deny service, rig the taximeter, not show the price card, apply fake surcharges and pretend not to have change. In a few well-publicised cases, some drivers have even threatened passengers and drivers of the Uber private car service with physical violence.

What is Uber?

Uber is a private service that calculates fares automatically, based on a GPS track of the route, and charges the user’s credit card. No actual cash changes hands, limiting the potential for common taxi scams. Their drivers wear uniforms and black ties. Water or juice is given to customers free of charge.

Sounds good right? But the reason the San Francisco-based company’s presence in Bogota and elsewhere has been so controversial is that, while conventional taxi drivers have to pay in excess of 100 million pesos ($40,000 USD) for the taxi medallion, Uber drivers do not, meaning the service is technically illegal.

The current law, which pre-dates the existence of smartphone apps, allows white public vehicles of the kind used by Uber drivers to provide transport for hotels, schools and businesses, but not to pick up members of the public in the way that ordinary cabs do.

On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, many Bogotanos avoided taking taxis to send a message to cabbies that they needed to get their act together. The day, dubbed Dia Sin Taxi (“Day Without Taxi”) also saw tens of thousands of people take to social media to condemn what is widely regarded as a sub-par, dishonest taxi service in the city.

What follows are the perspectives of a 10-year veteran taxi driver, the organiser of the Dia Sin Taxi campaign, and our regular columnist Oli Pritchard, each of whom shed light on the daily struggles on either side of this increasingly bitter divide.

‘It’s getting harder to make a good living’

Veteran cabbie Alfonso Giraldo tells us that rising costs and regulations, coupled with the growth of operators like Uber, mean Bogota’s taxi drivers are struggling

Alfonso Giraldo has been driving a taxi in Bogota for the past decade. He works the graveyard shift, and has seen the industry change a lot over the years – and not for the better, in his opinion. He’s the first to condemn the dishonest cabbies out there who take advantage of passengers by overcharging, but thinks a lot of what has been reported recently about “a few rotten apples” does not fairly portray the majority of taxi drivers as what they are: hard-working, honest citizens.

Taxi riders have a hand in helping make the overall service better, according to Giraldo. “If you take a taxi, note down the plate number: you can find it on the passenger doors or on the windows,” he says. “You should have taxi drivers’ registration card in front of you. If you think you were overcharged, you can report it to our companies, and this way we can weed out the rotten apples in this big basket of roughly 650,000 taxi drivers in our capital.”

The 62-year-old is what could be called an ‘old school’ driver, depending on the radio dispatcher and flag-down street fares to earn his living. Unlike the younger generation of drivers whose high-tech gadgets help them find a fare without lifting a finger, he’s never grown accustomed to the ever-evolving technology reinventing his industry. The Tappsi and Easy Taxi mobile applications have become almost as common as flagging down a random cab on the street – and are widely regarded as a safer option in a city where taxi crimes like paseo millonarios (“millionaire rides”) are not uncommon.

Compounding the growing plight of taxi drivers – especially independent drivers like Giraldo – is new legislation that will force cabbies to pay into social security and pension plans. This will cut into drivers’ earnings and push many to the breaking point, Giraldo claims.

Bogota Taxis, Dia Sin Taxi“First of all [the government] is planning to implement mandatory social security, health insurance and pension scheme and occupational hazards insurance. Fair enough, however the problem is who is going to pay for it,” he notes.
Giraldo continues: “The great majority of taxi drivers rent their vehicles from the owners every day. Regardless of how much money we make, we have to pay them COP $64,000 for a day shift or $63,000 for a night shift. What’s left is ours. We’d like them [the owners] to pay a share of that social security contribution.”

Like many of his colleagues, Giraldo feels that emerging companies like Uber – a cash-free car service that can only be ordered via smartphone app – are making an already fiercely competitive market even worse.  What’s more, he and other cabbies feel that the cards are stacked against them in the face of new companies like Uber. He points to the fact that taxi drivers have to pay up to 100 million pesos ($40,000 USD) for a taxi medallion, while Uber drivers pay no such fee, as the company operates outside the law with relative impunity, he says.

“There is already too much competition, and the Ministry of Transportation needs to enforce the law,” he adds, explaining that the rise in bicycle taxis is also taking away what was once a fruitful short-distance fare for conventional cabbies.

Asked about a complaint that many Bogotanos have about taxis – that many cabbies refuse passengers because they don’t want to go a particular area of the city- Giraldo says it’s because they usually have other people to tend to.

“What happens is that in most cases is that empty taxis you see are already reserved by radio, so they are empty but they’re not unoccupied,” he explains. “When taxi drivers stop and talk to a potential passenger, they’re only going to take them if they are going in the same direction.”

With additional reporting by Arek Peryt

Bogota Taxis, Dia Sin Taxi‘Taxi drivers can’t take us for granted’

Bogota’s taxi users are tired of the poor service from a substantial number of cab drivers, argues Día Sin Taxi organiser Ricardo Saavedra Sierra

It’s not just the highly publicised stories of taxi drivers being physically or verbally abusive to passengers that have a good portion of Bogota’s inhabitants up-in-arms – it’s the things you don’t hear on the news that seem to irk people the most. Taxi drivers charging exorbitant fees, and getting angry at riders who want to check the fare card. Taxi drivers rigging the taxi meters to climb faster than they should. And the countless taxi drivers who refuse to take people where they want to go, simply because they don’t want to go there.

All of this culminates in poor service, and with the city’s mass transport systems pushed to breaking point on an almost daily basis, a growing number of Bogotanos are fed up with drivers of the city’s yellow cabs taking passengers for granted.

This is according to Ricardo Saavedra Sierra, organiser of the online Día Sin Taxi (“No Taxi Day”) campaign. Saavedra, along with two others, came up with the idea of urging Bogotanos not to take cabs for a day, to show taxi drivers that people wanted a better, friendlier, and more honest service.

“Past inappropriate behaviour by some [drivers] has significantly tarnished the image of the guild,” Saavedra told The Bogota Post. “But our campaign was intended to be a peaceful demonstration of dissatisfaction with the service.”

The idea spread through Twitter and Facebook like wildfire. In just a few days, more than 34,000 Bogotanos joined the Día Sin Taxi Facebook group, and tens of thousands more Twitter users tweeted using the hashtag #DiaSinTaxi in support of the cause.

Saavedra is quick to point out that the goal of Día Sin Taxi was not to be hostile toward taxi drivers, nor was it a call for an outright boycott; the last thing he wanted was a mean-spirited confrontation.

“With a boycott, pressure is put on someone to encourage them to do or not do something, and this hinders or ruins a relationship,” he said. “The great challenge of Día Sin Taxi was – as every revolution born on social networks shows – to move from the initial euphoria of Likes and Retweets to a respectful debate, and to do so without confrontation or violence.”

But the day after Día Sin Taxi, the Colombian media was quick to label the Facebook protest an abysmal failure. This came as no surprise to Saavedra, who holds no illusions about the realities of Bogota’s myriad transport problems. Many people who supported the idea in theory probably took cabs on the day simply to get to work or school on time. But it got people talking – and if it made even one taxi driver think twice about gouging a passenger, progress has been made.

“There is no magic wand. Decades-old habits that have complex roots are not going to go away simply by changing the calendar day,” Saavedra said. “So the taxis were not empty [on Día Sin Taxi]. But the number of citizens who welcomed the measure is encouraging.”

He continued: “We managed to put [the campaign] on everyone’s lips for several days – the need for the public to enjoy excellent service and drivers to obtain better working conditions, to provide the service properly.”
According to Saavedra, the Día Sin Taxi campaign also hopes to see taxi drivers who may be struggling to make ends meet get better terms from their employers and from the Ministry of Transportation.

“The campaign is between those who use the service and drivers who have to sit 12 or more hours in traffic. But these two groups of ordinary citizens want the same thing – improved service in terms of fair prices, and for drivers to receive training programs, occupational health and social welfare,” he said.

Honest cabbies: A Bogota oxymoron?

As Oli Pritchard explains, cabbies overcharge in every city, but finding one in Bogota who won’t gauge you can be done

Full disclaimer: as an ex-bicycle messenger, I’ve had a long-standing dislike of taxis. They are our mortal enemies, a bit like a Dr. Xavier-Magneto affair. In most countries I have visited, across four continents from China to Chile, taxi drivers have been first-rate idiots, the kind of people who laughed when Bambi’s mother was shot, swerve to hit pets and support Manchester

Utd. The incarnation of evil, in other words. But things are, as usual, slightly different in this capital of ours.

In London, not only do cabbies have to pass ‘The Knowledge’, a test of memory comprising every single road, alleyway and square of the city, but also ‘The Ignorance’, a simple test of cheery right-wing views and casual racism. On top of that, anyone sounding even slightly like they might not know their way around will be taken on a sixty-six-street detour, possibly even via Scotland, en route to wherever they want to go. In India we once watched a taximeter come up faster than a vicar doing his first hit of ecstasy. A newspaper report there found that not one of 200 secretly monitored taxis charged the correct fare. I wonder what that figure might be here, where almost every cab has a clearly displayed fare guide.

Well, first we must provide the disclaimer that by no means are taxistas in the capital angels. From at times aggressive and even threatening behaviour, down to simply refusing to go to certain areas after a certain time, there are plenty of bad apples in their ranks. But then again, I would contend that one simply expects the overwhelming majority of cab drivers to be wankers. It amazes me that the taxifolk of Bogota regularly round the fare down to avoid using coins. Down! I would expect a cabbie to try and round up to the next 10,000. Still, it makes sense to avoid those new fifties which are more fiddly than a greased-up salmon having an epilepsy attack.

Bogota Taxis, Dia Sin TaxiThe fact remains: it’s a profession that normally attracts the worst and most brutish in our society. Those who live on the frayed ends of sanity and want to roam the streets looking for innocents to terrorise. Robert De Niro was watered-down, if anything, a benign version of the gun-toting psychopaths inherent in the trade. But no, here taxi drivers tend to be honest enough men (and the very occasional woman) who simply earned enough for a car and a license. While some of them might push it a bit with the meter, they’re more or less honest and there’s minimal messing around. At most, a few hundred extra, and as mentioned earlier, sometimes a little less!

On top of this, apart from the fact they all seem to be Millionarios fans, they are often good for fairly decent conversation. As imaginative as Wayne Rooney playing scrabble maybe, as if none of us expats have been asked where we’re from before, but usually okay. The other day, as we loaded a dog (a dog!) into a taxi, the driver simply asked about her breed and age, rather than kicking off to high heaven about us bringing her into a taxi. Most places on earth would grumble and whine about a child, let alone an excitable puppy shedding hair faster than Prince William’s scalp.

My main gripe with the taxicabs of Bogota, really, is that they often don’t know where they’re going, which is bizarre to me. It’s an imperfect grid system, sure, but not that hard to navigate around.

I mean, being asked where the Plaza de Las Americas is, that really takes the piss. Relying on GPS takes all the fun out of the game, not to mention being lazier than a butter sandwich. Go to somewhere like Palermo or Parkway and they get more confused than Alejandro Ordoñez in a room full of transvestite Nazis.

So, next time you’re in a tienda getting smashed sideways on cheap rotgut, raise a trago for the man that makes it possible for you to get home, the honest cabbie!