Cabbing in Cairo: Black, white, or Uber

Azza Radwan Sedky
Sunday 14 Feb 2016

When someone out there decided to do away with Cairo’s black taxis, I had nostalgic feelings similar to those I have now as I watch workers pull the metro rails out around Heliopolis. The black taxi and the Heliopolis metro were standard features in our daily commutes.

As the black taxi vanished, the white taxi flourished. Now, as taxi companies emerge, the future of the white taxi is unknown -- or is it? Today we compare Cairenes' travelling options.

The black taxi had deteriorated into a terrible state. Though its black exterior made sense, since it hid the dents and hideous results of being on the streets of Cairo, the interior had crumbled. Today the black taxi suffers even further humiliation, its drivers as old and as decrepit as their vehicles.

When the white taxi arrived, Cairenes loved it. The taxis were clean and brand new, and their owners troubled themselves to keep them so. But the white taxi isn’t doing so well anymore. The first sign of age appears in the idle taxi meter. And the enthusiasm by which the owners handled their vehicles is long gone. It’s back to the old ways of the black taxi.

With that come new alternatives: Uber, London Cab, Taxi Careem, and even Pink Taxi. Will these new options remain accessible and clean as their counterparts were at one point in time? Or is it the Cairo way? Nothing stays clean and bright.

My personal experience is with Uber. I summon my personal driver; on my phone, I watch the car head towards my doorstep; a couple of minutes later, he notifies me upon arrival and takes me to my destination; I leave the vehicle having not touched a piaster—no tip, hassle free.

My driver is always groomed, respectful, and extremely pleasant. The radio is turned off. Though the outside may be a congested madhouse, sanity prevails inside. The air-conditioning in the car is in functioning order, the interior of the car intact. That is as far as the car, owner, and ride are concerned. The security factor and the free-from-harassment options are even more valuable.

In 2009, Uber ventured into many cities; it is now worth $40 billion. While some cities met it with open arms, others declined the invitation. It remains banned in Thailand and some regions in Japan and India. Cities such as New York and Vancouver have yet to join the bandwagon—their taxi drivers creating a conundrum. Similarly, Egyptian taxi drivers want such taxi companies banned.

I can see why such transportation means can be a threat to taxi companies in other cities, but not in Cairo. Since they cater to a certain calibre of Cairenes, these companies will never replace the multitudes of taxis roaming Cairo all day long.

Uber, for instance, serves those who enjoy the luxury of credit cards and being online. This leaves massive numbers of Egyptians to take the regular taxis. Besides, alhough Uber Cairo contracted around 2,000 drivers, most of these drivers are part-timers, taking this job as an extra money-maker. This will translate into a relatively minor impact on the taxi industry as a whole.

If anything, competition may help regular cab drivers get their acts together: clean their cars, fix the meters, and stop bombarding passengers with horrendous music. It may also get them to buckle their seats and not reply to phone calls while driving. And most of all, drive sanely.

Still, challenges exist. The GPS system serving Cairo has yet to understand Cairo better. New locales are not identified, and challenging routes are unreachable. As streets become one-way or closed off for installation of metro lines and infrastructure improvements, the GPS turns dumb. At that point, the passenger is at the mercy of a driver who doesn’t know where he is going.

Also drivers choose where they want to find work. In Heliopolis or Zamalek, for instance, their chances of finding passengers are higher. Hardly anyone in a poverty-stricken area would consider such taxi companies. So, drivers, though they are not very knowledgeable of these areas, opt to station themselves there. Again, this leaves the passenger at the mercy of a driver who doesn’t know where he is going.

More challenges exist. Uber caters for those willing to pay for the comfort. At peak hours, it ups its payment depending on need. At the 2.5 surge, its basic payment becomes 25 pounds instead of 10 pounds, and the 40-pound ride may end up costing 100 pounds. Not every Cairene will go that route.

Still, this is indeed a promising change in Cairo’s transportation options. But for these service companies to continue at this standard and not face the black taxi’s fate, quality control becomes mandatory, regular inspections of driver and car a top priority, and evaluations, with comments, taken seriously.

The writer is author of Cairo Rewind, the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution

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