Cabbies in Mexico City and Beyond

Almost two decades ago, an army of green VW Beetles operating as taxis swarmed Mexico City like an ant colony in permanent search of the next meal—except cab drivers were not working in teams but rather competing intensively to get the next customer. Estimates suggest that half of the almost 100k taxis endlessly circulating the City at the time were little “bugs” or “Vochos,” as the locals called them. Many had removed the front passenger seat, which was convenient for passengers to hope in but created risks for those sitting in front of the now-empty space. Parties of 4 or more were required to secure two or more non-flying insects to reach their final destination. While certainly not the most comfortable, they got the job done. I used them many times when I visited and do not have any incidents to report. Aggressive driving and speeding, when traffic allowed, were expected but not that different from most other cities. However, unlike other countries, Mexico had been assembling Vochos since the 1970s and even exporting them to other countries and regions, including Europe.

Beetle production ended in the 2000s, and that, combined with new safety and quality taxi regulations issued by the City, led to the Vocho’s eventual demise as a cab and a car for regular use. Today, Uber and Didi seem to be in the lead, while four-door taxi sedans painted in white and pink constantly roam the City. Hailing one of the latter on the street is not recommended, however, as unlicensed cabs might be around. Regardless, demand seems high enough to keep competitors happy, income-wise. Recall that Mexico City is humongous both in size and population. In any case, I wonder why the relatively new Pinky Taxi network does not offer an app as an option.

In theory, those arriving at the City’s old airport should take one of the so-called authorized cab services, as all others are banned. While several companies compete in such a lucrative market, they seem to operate as an oligopoly, as prices vary minimally. Haggling is possible, but do not expect to get too much of a discount. In practice, the prices these guys charge are double what the others would charge—bear in mind that there is a 20% surcharge for all evening and night rides. One option is leaving the airport at your own risk and using an app.

I arrived in the early evening and was in a rush, as I needed to be at a book launch in the nick of time. So I headed for the first taxi stand that I saw just outside international arrivals. Authorized cab companies have dispatchers, usually young women, who seem to be in charge. They will promptly ask for a final destination and give a price after checking something on their phones or computers. Once you go for it, they give you a ticket and ask you to head to a specific exit gate where the car is presumably waiting. I was asked to head to gate 4, which was not close to the cab stand. My trip was expected to last 45 minutes, which gave me plenty of time to chat with the driver, a young and smiling man with deep black hair and big eyes who liked to talk, fortunately.

He was successfully running his own local hardware business. Suddenly, his very young son got severely ill. He was forced to sell the company to pay the endless fat medical bills. He also started selling home stuff and eventually had to move the family to a smaller place. When his son finally began to recover, a good friend, who had worked for the cab company for a while, suggested he should give it a shot. He took the dive and started working last December. And while his income was not the same as previously, he said he was making the cut. He gets 20% of a passenger’s pay for a ride, while the dispatcher gets 30, and the company that owns the cars keeps the rest. Drivers do not have to pay for maintenance expenses, gas or insurance. However, they are forced to work 48 hours in a row and rest the next 48. I thought he was joking when he told me that. I requested confirmation. Then, he shared that all authorized cab companies operating at the airport have the same rules for drivers.

That raises a gamut of issues, ranging from labor legislation to basic biology. According to Mexican law, workers should sell their labor power for a maximum of 48 hours weekly. But these cabbies are working 110 hours per week. However, the devil is in the details. He told me he could make six to eight trips on a good day. Now, these cabs can only pick up passengers at the airport, so they must return immediately and rejoin the queue once a passenger is dropped off. Queue times vary but are usually long, plus the airport does not operate at full capacity in the early hours of the AM. That creates an opening for many to take a nap, and its length depends on queue positioning. Regardless, I raised a safety issue, as tired drivers pose a risk to passengers not familiar with the working conditions. He responded that that was indeed a problem but was glad to report that accidents were rare. Regarding food and restrooms, it is up to the cabbies to find their way. While in Mexico City, street food is available all over the place and very affordable, finding a restroom can be more challenging. He said cabbies have identified key gas stations around the City where friendly owners or staff allow them to use their facilities regularly. An underground network of cabby restrooms is thus in place. Still, the whole situation is certainly less than ideal.

We spent a weekend in Tepoztlán, a small and beautiful town 45 minutes away from the big City. Its colonial architecture is now mixed with modern houses and mansions that affluent people from the capital have built. The tourist magnet town sits next to the Tepoztlán Sierra, which hosts the Tepozteco archeological site. This time, we decided to climb up to the Tepozteco, a feat everyone wants to complete that I had never done. The site is not that far away, just 2 kilometers (1.2 m), but the climb can be very steep at times, as one has to ascend 600 meters above the town, with gradients over 20 percent in some passages. A few stops are required to reach the summit alive. More challenging for me was the way down, as the path is rocky, steep and uneven. One has to carefully find the safest ground. At one point, I twisted my ankle but could continue without much trouble. Back at the place where we were staying, I applied ice and soon realized I could not walk easily. The fact that the town’s roads are cobblestone based and are as uneven as the Tepozteco hiking path and rarely flat did not favor my ankle. Going out required calling a taxi.

Now, ride-sharing apps in town do not work as the companies have yet to enter this market. A quick web search led to two local cab companies. We called one of them but got no answer. The second one pinpointed WhatsApp as the best way to contact. That’s what we did, and the car arrived within 10 minutes. Curious, I asked the cabby how did that work. A female dispatcher manages the company’s WhatsApp account in addition to its local radio network. Once a message comes in with pickup and destination addresses, she radios the drivers, asking for availability. Once a driver confirms, the dispatcher messages the client, specifying the cab number and driver’s name, and the wait time as reported by the responding cabby. That is an example of local innovation usually not appreciated by those pushing only the latest technologies. The cost of using WhatsApp for the company is close to zero, but the benefits are substantial. Having a text recording of clients’ requests allows multitasking, prevents omissions, and avoids address mix-ups. And so on. On the other hand, developing and deploying a company app can have high backend fixed costs that might not be fully covered when the market is tight. At any rate, such a solution seems ideal for a small market where local communities can find, deploy and manage their own solutions.

I also asked several of the drivers about the ride-sharing behemoth’s conspicuous absence. For starters, they say, the town’s road network is not conducive to fast and frequent rides. Indeed, I estimated that the average cab speed within the town was 200 meters (1/8 m) per minute or 12k per hour. At one point, we had to go to a nearby village, which took a while as traffic on the main paved road was surprisingly heavy. In their view, the big guys make most of the money on short and frequent rides. Seasonality was a second reason. Tepoztlán is a local tourism center, especially during weekends and school holidays. At all other times, business is slow, as most locals have a car or walk around town. And market size was the last barrier mentioned. In their view, the behemoths will never come to town a “natural” protective barrier against any intended corporate takeover. But they are certainly welcome to try, they concluded.

Raúl

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