Life for Lima's licensed cabbies ain't what it used to be. Illegal taxis swelling the capital's congested roads have for years denied them customers and depressed fares. Now, new rules to rid the unruly industry of an estimated 120,000 “pirate” cabs—which flout safety inspection laws and occasionally rob passengers—are rankling the very drivers it aims to help.
Stick black-and-yellow stripes on your side-panels and a lighted ‘TAXI' sign on your roof, or face a 190-sol (US$68) fine, the local authority told Lima’s 90,000 registered fleet this month. The new measures, says the authority, will enable passengers to distinguish the good guys from rogue operators. Drivers must also paint their cars yellow, white, or black by 2017, corresponding to whether they are self-employed, authorised to wait in a taxi rank, or take only pre-booked fares.
Taxistas (as Lima's taxi drivers are known) circulating around the suburb of Miraflores told Global Voices they didn't believe the move would cut crime, and that it's really a ruse to raise revenue for the local authority.
“We suffer every three months, there are constant changes,” said Jesús Alberto Alarcón Huauya, a self-employed licensed driver whose already yellow cab exempts him from having to make the change. “It’s not going to stop the criminals, as anyone can buy the stripes. It’s a shame that in Peru this is a business for the mayor’s office. It's all a mafia.”
“Where I am going to get this money from?” says Marco Antonio Rodríguez Atarra, a self-employed licensed driver for eight years who earns 100 soles a day on average. “It’s about 85 soles for the stripes and it could be 1,500 soles to paint a car. I give it three months maximum and then the authorities won’t bother us. I’m not going to comply and spoil my car with these stripes.” Most of his colleagues won't be obeying the rules either, added Rodríguez Atarra, even though the fine for a repeat offence is 380 soles.
Peru's capital has more than double the number of taxis it needs, reported the news daily El Comercio in 2011. According to another newspaper, El Gestión, in 2010 congestion cost the economy $1 billion in lost productivity. To formalise the trade, the local authority has in recent years tried to impose taxi meters with regulated fares, and license plates with electronic chips. Licensed drivers’ cars must not be more than 14 years old. But enforcement has been patchy.
“Taxis only satisfy 10 percent of the demand, but take up 70 percent of the roads,” said Susana Villarán, Lima’s mayor, who passed the proposal last August. Drivers said the new rules were a move to win votes for the incumbent Villarán, who seeks re-election in November's local elections. They expect the rules to be dropped if the 64-year-old centre-left mayor loses.
“What efficiency from our Mayor, waiting three-and-a-half years to sort out the taxi service,” wrote commenter AlbertoMartinezMolina on the Lima newspaper La Republica's website. “Pure opportunism for the coming elections. Long live the lady of honesty.”
Lima's absence of a formal public transit network, further strained by the near trebling of the city's population since the 1980s to over 9 million, has given free rein to the private sector. A legion of small, privately-owned minibuses, known locally as combis, and about 45,000 colectivos, taxis shared by commuters travelling the same routes, have for years clogged up Lima's main thoroughfares.
But things are changing. The local authority inaugurated its metro line in 2011, and the first stage of its underground second line will be ready in 2016, with a further three lines in the works. Larger American-style school buses, known as coasters, are being favoured over combis, which critics say drive recklessly, racing for customers waiting at stops.
But the new metro line, which has cut commutes from two hours to 30 minutes along the 34 kilometre north-south route, is inadequate: queues for the service are long, and taxis still are necessary for certain kinds of trips.
Dante Paredes, a social worker, said having all taxis vouched for by the authority by displaying certain colours or stripes would make him feel safer. “It’s about stamping down order for progress,” he says. Public security ranks as a key voter concern and will be a critical factor in the local elections. Nine out of ten citizens felt unsafe in the Lima's streets, according to an Ipsos poll in January.
Jaime Sorilla, a 65-year old retired businessman, has little sympathy for the taxi drivers, but considers the ever-changing policies of mayors who govern in four-year terms disruptive. “Drivers are going to have to finance it. If they don’t sort out this integral plan, if they don’t give us guarantees a taxi is registered, we’ll remain in danger.”
“An old mayor vowed to have all the taxis painted, then it was forgotten as the new mayor wasn’t bothered. They are cretins and donkeys. The continuation of good things mustn’t always be coloured by who’s governing,” Sorilla added.
The new informal
The cumbersome process involved in becoming a registered driver is partly to blame for the rise of the informal system.
“The system’s too chaotic,” said Vladimir Garcia, a student who regularly relies on taxis for commuting. “At the moment, in order to get a license to be a taxi driver they must queue for hours or days, which is problematic.”
High volumes of paperwork and low levels of enforcement are the reason one ‘pirate’ driver, who wished to remain anonymous, says it pays to be unlicensed. The registration service has been non-functional since November 2012.
“I work quietly, on the down low, with a number of repeat clients,” said the driver, who drove a well-maintained saloon and earns between 100-200 soles a day. “I’ve been fined once in five years. I paid 500 soles in Callao [a neighbouring city]. They police are always there but they don’t see me—it’s not bad.”
The assistant manager of the Taxi Service of the Management of Urban Transport at the local authority, Violeta Valiente, said the mayor’s office has “agreements with 19 district councils in Lima to inspect offending taxis all over the city.”
On the ruling’s first day in force, transport inspectors fined 53 drivers for not having the regulation stripes. But drivers registered in Lima’s neighbouring port city of Callao, who often cross the city limits, will need neither stripes, nor to paint their cars, confirmed Miguel Gonzalez, Urban Transport manager in the Municipality of Callao.
Valiente said it would be “ideal” to have a single authority overseeing both cities.
Lima-registered cabbie Jimmy Mulgar, who drives a “remisse” taxi that can only ferry pre-booked customers, said the fact that Callao-based drivers were exempt was “nonsense. There's great discrepancy between Lima and Callao transport, and it affects only us.”
With its plans for subways and a more regulated bus service, Lima’s modernising transport system seeks to redress the dominance of the private sector. The success of the new plan for taxis relies on consistent enforcement and continuity across different mayors’ terms in office, conditions which cabbies treat with scepticism. For those who will eventually be displaced, however, a unsteady future looms.
“If things continue like this, I may have to look for other work,” says Cesar Elias. “It’s difficult. Businesses won’t give a damn about hiring me because I’m 49 years old. Some day, I would like to see how taxis are in London. You English are 200 years ahead of us.”
Alex Pashley is a British journalist based in Lima, covering current affairs of the enchanting Andean nation. Not three months into his stay, he already feels at home, having swapped the infernal drizzle and muggy skies of England's Midlands for Lima's infamous winter. He's worked for Bloomberg News in London and in the local press.