The struggle for better cab services

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

By : Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The news this week that the National Transportation Committee of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry is looking into the operation of several unauthorized taxi services that operate locally through cell phone applications that are being run by foreign firms — illegally one must add — is not surprising but rather puts the spotlight on the ever constant need for better taxi services in Saudi Arabia and around the globe.

One of the main pioneers of this new type of taxi service has been the American-owned Uber, which this year launched its services in the Kingdom, and which has been under attack around the globe for operating with barely any regulation. From Singapore to Germany, Uber has been threatened by local authorities with shutdown for not adhering to local transportation rules and regulations. The main gripe against the upstart is that most of its drivers, who drive their own cars as taxis, do not have enough insurance coverage. And that is exactly the same criticism that is being thrown at these taxi-services here in Saudi Arabia, according to Saud Al-Nafaie, the chairman of the transportation committee in Riyadh. He warned that the Ministry of Transportation is monitoring these services, where the vehicles are not licensed as taxis, the drivers not trained, and many times do not have enough insurance to cover their passengers in case of accidents.

Singapore announced this week that it is regulating third-party taxi booking services, and will be requiring them to use only licensed cabs and drivers from the second quarter of 2015. This is good news. In New York City, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has been in regular legal tussles with Uber since 2012 when the startup handed out iPhones to yellow cabs preloaded with its application. A court ruled that yellow cabs could not accept pre-arranged rides, either booked by phone or online, but that black limousines could.

In any event, the convenience of using a phone-app to request a taxi is what has revolutionized the industry and what has scared traditional taxi cartels and the authorities that control them. While one cannot deny that the lack of knowledge of city streets and training as a taxi driver are the most common complaints against the drivers of private cars used by third-party applications, one cannot deny the ease and amazement of clicking on your taxi application on your cell phone and requesting a taxi. Last June when I was in Sao Paulo a friend requested a taxi for me after our meal at a restaurant on her cell phone. Immediately it told us the name of the taxi driver that was coming, estimated time of arrival, the model of his car, his license plate number and his cell phone number. It also showed us on a map where he was using GPS technology. When he seemed to be taking a little too long to arrive we just called him up on his cell phone and he confirmed that he was nearly there. This service worked with a regular taxi and driver, both duly licensed and regulated by the city of Sao Paulo. And with most of these taxi applications you can link your credit card or PayPal account to them to use to pay for the rides. How convenient is that?

It is clear that the convenience and ease of use of such taxi service applications have attracted women as their main customers in Saudi Arabia, where standing out on the curb of a sidewalk to hail a cab is both considered socially unacceptable and can be dangerous as well. Not only that, the cars used by these services are usually luxury saloons, with no taxi markings, which many women prefer to use as this gives everyone the impression that they are being driven around in a private car with a driver and not in one of those dirty and smelly white limousines that roam the streets of Saudi cities in the hundreds.

Unfortunately, the white limousines that we see in all Saudi cities are driven mostly by expatriate drivers who do not own their vehicles and are required to pay the fleet owner a fixed sum every day, which can reach SR130. This leads to tired and harassed drivers that spend more hours on the road every day to in order to make enough money to survive on. Many end up not taking care of their cars, denting them in small accidents and smelling them up with their cigarette smoke. With that, it is easy to see why so many women in Saudi would be attracted to the private car services such as Uber, both for their convenience and fancier cars, even if they have to pay more for each ride.

Nevertheless, the government should still regulate the private car services by making sure that the drivers are adequately trained, that their cars are up to safety standards and most importantly that they have enough insurance coverage to protect themselves and their passengers in case of an accident. But these services should not be banned. Technology has arrived to make our lives better, easier and more convenient. Surely there are enough customers for regular taxis and the private cars. Regulating both in a better fashion would do wonders to improve transportation services and the whole experience of taking a taxi in Saudi Arabia, be it a white limousine that you hail on the street or a fancy luxury car that you book through your cell phone.


The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.



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