Uber: The answer to Mexico City's transportation problems?
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Uber: The answer to Mexico City's transportation problems?

When car service Uber officially launched in Mexico City in August 2013, skeptics rolled their eyes. Was this yet another example of an American company eagerly extending its tentacles south of the border to edge out local business and profit from Mexico’s nouveau riche? Would the service even work in the capital, a city beset by myriad traffic woes?

“We’re finally giving this city the transportation system that it deserves,” the company crowed in a blog post announcing the launch. And a year later, their claim seems to be validated: Uber is working. In fact, it’s working far better than anyone ever expected, and its success is a win for everyone involved.

Am I in the right place?

After landing at Benito Juárez International Airport and clearing immigration and customs, I find a WiFi hotspot and request a car from Uber. The driver, Rafael García, arrives within one minute, his VW Jetta polished to a glossy black sheen. I know his name because it — along with the make and model of his car and its license plate data — pops up on my iPhone.

García steps out of the car, puts my bag in the trunk, and opens my door, showing me a bottle of water I’m welcome to drink if I’m thirsty.

Do I need to charge my phone? What’s the model? García has a variety of chargers in the glove compartment and produces one for my iPhone 5. Do I want to read the newspaper? There are fresh copies of Reforma, Excelsior, and El Universal in the seatback pocket in front of me.

Did I land in the right city?

Usually, I take a radio taxi from the airport. Drivers are courteous enough and the cars are generally in better condition than street-hail taxis, which I take when I’m in the city proper, but this is an entirely different experience.

I’ll have to pay handsomely for this privileged treatment, though, right? No. After García drops me off at my destination, Uber sends the receipt for the ride to my phone. The total? 227 pesos, or about US$18, which is fairly competitive.

Uber in Mexico City. Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo.

Uber in Mexico City. Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo.

“It’s about making a better living”

García, who was a taxi driver before Uber launched here, says working for the car service has been a blessing for him. “It’s about making a better living,” he says. “I make much more money now.”

His story is echoed by every other Uber driver I talk to in the capital, from one who has been on the job for just a day to one who has worked for the company since its launch. I even meet a journalist-turned-Uber-driver who says that his reporter’s salary wasn’t paying the bills. Though a bit nervous about making the career switch, he has been happy with his take-home earnings.

García and his fellow Uber drivers also say they are safer.

“For drivers, Uber is fabulous,” says Pedro, another Uber driver, who asks that I not use his last name. “Especially since we don’t have to deal with cash. Here, you know, someone will kill you for 100 pesos. But with Uber, everything is transacted automatically with a credit card — no cash. You want my car? Take it. It’s insured.”

The fact that cash never changes hands benefits customers, too. How many times have I taken a taxi in Mexico City and handed the driver a 100-peso — or even 50-peso — note, only to be told that he has no change?

A driver certificate on a regular street-hail taxi in Mexico City. Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo

A driver certificate on a regular street-hail taxi in Mexico City. Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo

There are other reasons both drivers and clients have flocked to Uber, such as the fact that Uber drivers are screened thoroughly before they ever put their hands on the wheel. García rattled off a laundry list of qualifications and tests he had to take before he was brought on board as an Uber driver: a drug screening, criminal background check, and a battery of psychological exams, as well as extensive quizzing about the city’s layout and landmarks.

This multi-step verification process ensures riders’ safety in a way that the city’s own taxi system does not. Despite certificates with drivers’ names posted on taxi windows, it is impossible to really know whether a street-hailed taxi driver is legit. The certificates are easy enough to replicate, a problem that has plagued the capital for years.

According to journalist Oscar Carbajal, 20,000 “pirate taxis” are believed to be roaming the streets of Mexico City. That’s 14 percent of the total taxi pool.

Then there’s the issue of actually getting to the place you’re going. Mexico City is a labyrinth of streets that even the most seasoned of drivers can’t possibly have memorized. Many drivers carry a Guía Roji atlas and make at least a half-hearted effort to thumb through it if you name a destination they don’t know. But on more than one occasion, I’ve been left on the corner of a street in a neighborhood I don’t know well, dispatched with a “Lo siento, mi’ja,” before the driver peels off in search of another customer.

Uber provides all of its drivers with iPhones. In addition to calculating the ever-important cost of the trip, the phones provide crucial support for drivers. Maps, GPS, and point-A-to-point-B directions eliminate the “How do we get there?” question, taking pressure off both the driver and the passenger.

The haves and the have-nots

Echoing the resistance to the rideshare company that has appeared in other countries, not everyone is thrilled about Uber’s presence in Mexico City.

“It’s true that some members of the taxi drivers’ union are not happy about Uber,” García says. “Some of them have even attacked Uber drivers because they think we are taking work away from them. But the problems with the union are decreasing, as patrols have been assigned to hot spots where there have been conflicts between union members and Uber drivers.”

Another driver I interviewed put it more bluntly. “Who cares if we’re taking your jobs?” he asks. “You did this to yourself. If you look like a bum, drive a shitty car, and don’t treat people with respect, you don’t deserve to have a job. Get with the game.”

Not every driver can get with the game, though, and that remains the flash point of conflict between Uber drivers and conventional and radio taxi drivers. Because of the stringent background checks, many drivers will never be able to get in on the Uber game. And unless they team up with friends or colleagues who can go in on a car to share, many conventional taxi drivers don’t have the capital to buy or lease the kind of car Uber drivers are required to own.

bug taxi!

A driver with one of Mexico City’s old, unmistakeable VW Beetle taxis. Photo: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Stimulating competition

Still, Uber has been a game-changer for drivers who have been able to get on board, and for riders, too. García explains that Uber has had such a rapid acceptance in the city because it provides a layer of safety that has never existed with regular taxis.

“Parents love Uber,” he says, pointing out that they can track teenagers’ movements and ensure that their children stay safe — never getting behind the wheel after drinking, for example — through the app. Uber is especially popular on weekends, when everyone wants to go out but no one wants to look for parking.

As Uber’s success in the capital has boomed, local entrepreneurs have launched similar services. “There’s one service called Cabify,” García says, naming just one of the Uber-like companies that now offers services in Mexico City. Other similar apps include the Latin America-wide Easy Taxi, taxibeat, and Yaxi, all of which incorporate Uber-like features.

“None has the widespread acceptance of Uber, though,” García says, noting that word of mouth about Uber spread quickly thanks to the enthusiasm of early adopters.

Uber, for its part, has been so buoyed by the success of its service in Mexico City that it subsequently launched in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, and has taken an even bigger gamble by rolling out service in the border city of Tijuana.

Do riders miss the Mexican taxis of yore? Maybe. For many of us, there’s a certain nostalgia attached to the old street hail cabs, especially the green-and-white VW Beetles that were phased out in 2012. But the added benefits of the car service have made Uber’s arrival in Mexico, for many, a welcome one.