It may be louche to pen my final piece of the year addressing a situation as trite as the demise of the taxi service Uber in Bogotá and not delivering a well-investigated analysis on the peace dialogues with the FARC, the exploratory talks with the ELN, the strengthening of the dollar or tumbling oil prices.
But, in my defense, I feel that not enough has been written about this dastardly attack on innovation, free competition, good customer service and the right to choice.
And it’s not just a question of the aforementioned undisputed points made.
Putting aside the valid legal argument for Uber’s prohibition, that has fallen with demoralizing alacrity on the side of the taxi unions, how about addressing the very real issue which is, for the consumer, to arrive at his or her destination safely and for the correct price?
Competition is healthy, but this rearing beast of protectionism will continue to hold Colombia back.
My wife, now in to her 20th week of pregnancy, is experiencing all sorts of excruciating pain stemming from her sciatic nerve as her body stretches to accommodate the ever expanding ten ounce mango around her midriff.
What was the first question her obstetrician asked? “Do you take a lot of taxis?”
Far be it for me to blame her searing sciatica on the driving skills of an individual seated behind the wheel of a precious Daewoo but, why would the medical practitioner have asked in the first place?
A damning indictment if ever there was one.
The only solution after one too many nausea-inducing rides was to move over to Uber. When we did so, our driver was courteous, inspired confidence in his motor skills, offered us bottled water, miraculously the seatbelts worked and there was no banal discussion about which route to take.
At no point did this individual hunch forward to hit the mythical switch found beneath the driver’s seat to speed up the taximetro and I did not feel that we were being provided an unwanted tour of Bogota’s secondary roads. Uber was perfect.
So why are the yellow cab firms so worked up about Uber? The demographic of users is quite unique, and seeing the pristinely clean white cars lined up along the Carrera Septima between Calles 68 and 71 on a Saturday night was testament to that.
These people dining out in Rosales’ Zona G are the same who telephone specific drivers with whom they feel secure, have their own private chauffeurs and escoltas and use valet parking when the need arises, hardly a threat to the thousands of yellow taxis out there.
Planning an evening out with some friends from overseas, mistakenly I failed to book an Uber vehicle and hailed a taxi on the street such was the rush and the failure for any driver in yellow to respond to repeated requests via their specific Apps.
One amongst our entourage, from Mexico, commented about the great service provided by Uber in his city. This idle comment clearly affected our driver. His driving neither improved nor worsened as he wove through Bogotá’s evening traffic, swung left to descend to the Carrera 15 just as the light was changing and shot past our destination.
“You know, we have a good service too. Who needs Uber?”
“Do you take credit cards asked my friend?” The answer was to the negative. “Then I am obliged to use Uber so I can charge the fares to my company.”
Our driver remained mute. I took this moment to remind him of our destination.
“We have a good service,” he repeated perhaps failing to notice that we were two blocks away now and stopped in the centre of the road requiring us to dodge flying vehicles careening down the inside lane.
Perhaps what becomes more irritating about the whole banishment of Uber from our streets is the way that the yellow taxi drivers have now been strengthened and now more than ever the lines between a favour and a contract have been blurred.
Each yellow cab driver out there somehow believes that he is doing you the favour of taking you to your desired destination. Of course, this is wrong and goes some way to explaining the wretched state of the service industry in Colombia.
Forgive me Mr. Taxi Driver, what we have between us is not a favour, it’s a contract. There’s a binding code in existence in that you cannot refuse to take me where I want to go once you have pulled to the curb.
If you do not want to take a fare, then why stop? On what level do I possibly care that you live on the Avenida Boyaca when I need to get to Chapinero?
And then, there’s the issue of doing business in Colombia. If a startup comes in and creates a competition that can improve service for the consumer, then this should be applauded not criminalized.
Competition is healthy but this rearing beast of protectionism will continue to hold Colombia back.
Watch and learn as Bogotá’s taxi firms start their own brand of Uber, of course with a different name, and try and tap into the rich vein of discontent with our current stock.
Except, they will have the last laugh as they’ll be able to charge a premium rate claiming that the exclusivity and security is equal to or better than that formerly offered by Uber and yet the cars will be manned by the same drivers as those in the yellow Daewoos.