The last time I visited Guadalajara, Mexico, was in 2011. Jalisco’s Electoral Institute (IEPC in Spanish) invited me to take part in a seminar on technology and citizen participation. Gathering proceedings were published later on and are still available here. Back then, regular taxis were one of the main options for moving around the city. Cabs in Guadalajara had meters so there was no need to negotiate ride fees with drivers before hoping into a car.
I went back a few days ago, on a short-term consultancy. While the hotel booked by the company that hired me was centrally located, the work envisaged meeting a wide diversity of local actors dispersed all around an already large city that continues to grow. Unlike five years ago, our options for going from one place to another were not limited to traditional taxis. We soon discovered that we could use a series of app-based car services, Uber included. While my work colleagues preferred to use Uber, as they had created accounts back in the US,((I do not use Uber in the US as I have a car and drive and/or take public transportation.)) I was agnostic about using a particular car service, including regular taxis. I was also looking for ways to avoid using my credit card and pay in cash instead – as the Mexican peso has been declining against the US dollar since last year.
We did over 35 rides, including regular taxi service. I spoke to most of the drivers and asked them about their personal experience with their companies. Most of those in app-based companies did not own the cars they use. Uber takes 25% out of each ride, while the drivers only keep 20% leaving the other 55% for car owners. The latter owns several cars and thus can generate substantial gross revenue. Drivers instead have to work long hours to secure the income they need to sustain themselves and their families.
On average, they work 12 hours a day but most are “happy” doing the job. A few of them have plans to save some income to buy their own cars. One driver I spoke to had just bought the car he was driving and was very excited about the future although he did not discount the impact of heavier competition and larger public transportation systems the city is planning to deploy. For him, his new vehicle is also a family car as now he can take the family out for a drive on Sundays, for example.
One issue with using app-based car services in Guadalajara is waiting times. While sometimes the service is quite fast, in most others waiting time can be between 6 to 10 minutes. In one occasion, I was told the car will arrive in 20 minutes. I canceled the request and instead hailed a regular taxi that has a waiting time of close to zero if one is in a main street of the city. When I asked for a receipt at the end of my taxi ride, the driver handed me a nice and clean pre-printed form which I was supposed to fill in my own.
Taxi drivers loudly complained about the new competition and see it as unfair as app-based car services are not subject to the same regulations they face in terms of both taxes and permits. But most did seem to take the issue in stride as if there is not much they can do about it. One driver I hailed at noon on the street told me I was his first tide of the day as he had been idle since 8 am. He also told me that his gross income had declined by at least 50% per month since the competition started. He was not sure what to do next but his prediction was that the situation would get worse, not better, in the short time. By the way, all the drivers I met where men.
The day of my departure I used the Citydrive app to head to the airport. Since I knew waiting times could be a challenge, and I was traveling back home on Saturday, I requested the service a bit sooner than needed, just in case. A brand new car with leather seats arrived 12 minutes later. The driver stepped out of the car to help me put my luggage in the trunk. I must admit my surprise when I noticed that the driver was a middle-aged woman. Once our ride started, I asked her about women driving for app-based car services. She told me they were still few female drivers in Guadalajara. On the other hand, one of the advantages of app-based car services, she said, is increased security as the driver knows well beforehand the location of and some basic information about the person requesting the service. This to her was an incentive although working late nights is a no go..
Still surprised, I poked a bit more and inquired about the way she got into this business. Her response was even more surprising. She was trained as a social worker but almost by accident ended up working at the Major’s office as operations manager. She spent there 18 years until 2015 when the local elections brought big political changes in the Major’s office. As a result, she was let go and given one day notice to leave her desk. While she tried to look strong while facing peers and new bosses at the office, she fell apart once she left the office and was severely depressed for several months.
Almost at the same time, her single daughter informed her she was pregnant. While this did not help, it eventually yielded a bright light of hope. The birth of her first granddaughter provided the motivation to escape depression, appreciate the beauty of life and look for ways to make things happen for her. She heard about app-based car services from the son of a friend who knew one owner of a fleet of cars operating under such scheme. Turns out this owner was coincidentally having issues with one of his younger employees and was looking for more “responsible” drivers. She made a pitch to the owner who, to her surprise, agreed to hire her on the spot. He told her that both her age and gender made her an ideal candidate for providing good services to clients and taking good care of the car, a major concern for him. And, as they say, the rest is history!
As she dropped me at the airport, I told her the next time I am in Guadalajara I would try to seek her services. However, I am not sure when I will be back, if ever.