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Battle Over Uber in Mexico City Shows World’s Largest Taxi Fleet Is in Dire Need of Reform

Mexico City's registered street cabs are notorious for shoddy service and robberies, creating an opening for taxi apps like Uber.

by Gabriela Gorbea
Jun 29 2015, 7:30pm

Photo by Marco Ugarte/AP

Cabs in Mexico City are one of those classic Mexican conundrums.

The city has what is called the largest fleet of registered cabs in the world, at nearly 140,000, which offer one of the cheapest services around, with fares starting at just 55 cents.

But the taxis in this dense megalopolis of 20 million people are also notorious for being unreliable, non-compliant with regulations, and even dangerous.

Foreigners and visitors to the city are routinely told to avoid hailing a Mexico City taxi on the street, lest they be taken for a spin by a sneaky driver eager to run up a fare. Hold-ups inside cabs are also considered a problem.

"So many bad experiences," one taxi customer in Mexico City recently told the Associated Press.

From the perspective of registered taxi drivers, the piles of bureaucracy and fees that city hall imposes on their work prevent them from keeping their vehicles in better conditions in order to offer the best service possible.

All these issues have come to the fore since the 2013 arrival of Uber, one of several alternative ride-hailing smartphone apps that are growing in Mexico City, sparking heated debate in the capital's often-stressful transportation market.

In recent weeks, registered cab drivers have staged protests against Uber and Cabify, a smiliar app, while reports have circulated of violent confrontations between app drivers and official taxis on Mexico City's choked streets.

Registered cab drivers scuffle with city transportation police during a May 25 protest against Uber in central Mexico City. (Photo by Marco Ugarte/AP)

Besides official taxis, there are approximately 45,000 illegal cabs operating in the city, government figures show, and between 5,000 and 10,000 vehicles operated by companies that offer their service through an app.

Official cabs call the app services an "illegal" and "unfair" form of competition.

"Uber drivers don't have the required papers. They are neither qualified nor authorized to provide a transportation service," cab driver Vicente Soto told VICE News at a May 25 anti-Uber gathering.

Soto, who has been a taxi driver at Mexico City's international airport for 30 years, said that apps like Uber are affecting companies that obey strict — and expensive — local transportation laws.

Regular taxi drivers can spend up to $7,000 dollars in government fees.

"The law says that you need to have a special concession that costs $5,200 dollars, then you must pay for other papers, which add up to almost $7,000 dollars," Sergio Gallegos, another cabbie, told VICE News.

"And if the government wants to change the color of the cabs, they do it, and Uber obviously does not pay for any of that," he added.

Related: NYPD Detective Apologizes for Expletive-Filled Tirade at Uber Driver

After week of tension and uncertainty, the taxi apps may soon see a reprieve.

On Friday, a city-sponsored urban think tank known as LabCDMX, or Laboratory for the City, released a series of recommendations for officials that call for an "equal playing field" for both app taxis and city taxis.

The recommendations followed a June 17 debate featuring more than 50 figures from both sides, as well as transportation experts and others. The LabCDMX talks concluded that Mexico City must reduce and simplify fees and formalities aimed at regulating taxis.

"We can't freeze the city in a point in time in order to avoid moving things from where they are," LabCDMX director Gabriella Gomez-Mont told VICE News on Monday. "New technologies bring with them new paradigms, more transparency. So we're looking to create an equal playing field."

The recommendations are nonbinding, and the city's transportation ministry has not publicly said how it will respond. But Gomez-Mont said she is certain the administration of Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera will reply favorably.

Several major city taxi groups have since agreed to welcome Uber to the market if their bureaucratic constraints are reduced. Uber has also said it welcomes equal forms of regulation with city taxis.

"Some have already said, 'We welcome the competition,'" said Gomez-Mont.

Uber is still facing resistance in other parts of Mexico where it has begun operating. In the states of Queretaro and Mexico, authorities have called the app services illegal.

"We are not against the competition, but it should be a fair competition," Raciel Palafox, who has been a licensed cabbie for 12 years, told VICE News. "If I had to spend as little money on papers as them, I could be driving a Passat or a BMW, but the government has bled me out."

In the meantime, the app also got a favorable nod from Mexico's Federal Commission on Economic Competition, which said earlier this month it supports the formal recognition of Uber in the Mexico City market.

Gomez-Mont, the lab director, said it was worthwhile to keep the presence of ride-hailing apps in proper context in a city as big and unequal as Mexico's Federal District. She also noted that crime related to street taxis has fallen over the past ten years.

"Uber has a limit that's very interesting. A smartphone and a credit card is required, but less than two million people have credit cards in Mexico City," she said.

Gallegos, one of the city cab drivers, said that now it is the government's turn to respond.

"People say that our vehicles are dirty, and that they are risky, but the risk is the government's fault. With all the corruption, they have allowed all the irregularities in cabs," he said.

Related: French Cabbies Violently Protest Uber, Prompting Ban, and a Courtney Love Tirade

Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report. Follow @VICENews for updates on the news in Mexico.