02 October 2006

Taxi strike

Taxi drivers are on strike in Rosario since Saturday. Today they blocked a couple of streets downtown, adding their little contribution to the usual chaos, protesting for the latest attack suffered by one of them and demanding more security. In a country where unemployment and poverty are still horrific, a taxi with a day's worth of money is unfortunately the best target available, cost-benefit-wise.

Those taxis always give me mixed feelings. On one hand, they do suffer a lot of robberies, often violent. They work long hours, carrying around people the rest of us would never get close to for long. In weekend nights they're assaulted by hordes of drunk teenagers with functioning neurones barely enough to indicate their destination and understand a fee.

Yet taxis are not cheap. A few months ago they protested because they were suffering so many robberies and earning so little -- they got authorized a steep fee increase on the promise of installing radio call systems in every unit, so it would be both safer for them, and more handy for us to call them. They raised the fee, but refused to install the radios. They were (they are) very few. They are not enough for a city of 1 million with a large middle class who can still afford taxis, and whose young (especially) like to party at night, when buses are scarce and the streets are dark. The taxis are few because you need a license to drive one, and the owners of licenses won't allow any more licenses, on the excuse that that would hurt their business. The municipality could grant more licenses, but it would face a riot; and it's no secret that some legislators of Rosario's Deliberative Council manage taxi licenses. Some people own fleets of taxis but won't have them in the streets as much as they could. The result: you may be waiting on an important avenue for 10, 15, 30 minutes without getting a taxi.

The taxi drivers are also picky. They won't stop for someone who looks poor, whose skin is darker than average, whose clothes seem shabby. At times they won't stop for lonely men or near large groups. They won't enter dangerous neighborhoods, or places they deem unworthy. They enjoy a classic scenario of low offer and high demand. One taxi owner, before the last fee increase, argued that taxis are not supposed to be cheap and accessible. He said that, now that Argentina is recovering from the economic crisis, more and more people are becoming able to afford a taxi ride, and that was a problem. Instead of hiring more drivers to get the units rolling 24/7, the taxi owners chose to maintain a lousy service with a higher fee, which automatically cuts the demand. These days you practically have to beg for a taxi: the telephones of the radio-call taxi companies are always busy; the taxis in the street sometimes pick you up and then make you get off when they find out the destination is "inconvenient" for some reason.

The security issue is real. The taxi drivers were offered alternatives, like installing a GPS system with a "panic button" which would alert nearby units and the police the moment they're being robbed; putting an unbreakable glass between the driver and the passengers in the back; getting people to pay with debit or pre-paid cards instead of cash. They wanted none of it. They're not very sure what they want, really -- they ask for "security", as if you could have that for yourself in a city where teenagers routinely kill for drug money. Someone suggested that a police officer could go on each taxi unit. Today, vice-governor María Eugenia Bielsa announced that the provincial police will be implementing "safe corridors" with increased patrols along certain streets -- which shows that a) right now the police is not doing its work on those streets; b) starting soon, there will more police in certain areas, for high-priced taxis with middle-class passengers to be safer, while "darker" peripherical areas will be still less safe than they're now. And of course, the taxi drivers will continue refusing to enter those areas.

If only buses worked as they should... but that's material for another rant.

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