Uber in Colombia Suffers Regulatory Intimidation as Pressure Groups Reign Supreme


EspañolTaking a taxi ride in Bogotá often involves descending into the world of the picaresque (roguish hero).

First of all, catching a cab on the street often requires advanced skills in the art of supplication, for drivers tend to ask where the potential passenger is headed, after which they can refuse to take him aboard if they deem his destination to be out of their way.

For those passengers who do make it on board, not seldom having resorted to a solemn act of proskynesis, the journey can offer manifold exaltations. Surprises, namely unpleasant ones, are often in store when it comes to paying the fare, which is determined by an arcane, unintelligible price table posted on the back of the passenger seat. The unwritten rule is that gringos, a term that has come to apply to nearly all foreigners, pay at least double.

The biggest surprise of all, however, comes when, after a sudden, unexpected halt right in the middle of one’s cab ride, a couple of armed bandits jump into the back seat like predators after a wounded rodent, one from each side. The passenger, unable to escape, is then forced, often at gunpoint, to hand over the goods.

More than jewelry or the cash the victim is carrying, the street-corner corsairs perpetrating the “millionaire’s ride” — the act of rapine has come to be known popularly as the paseo millonario — are interested in emptying the passenger’s bank accounts. They thus drive him across the city, stopping at numerous ATM machines and forcing him to withdraw funds until his accounts are as empty as Scandinavian churches.

Usually, the ride ends with the victim left in a field or some remote hell-hole, from where he can begin his odyssey home. I say usually because there are exceptions: a schoolmate of mine who underwent the “millionaire’s ride” recently was left near his house in northern Bogotá and given COL$20,000 (approximately US$10), presumably so that he could catch another cab home. How chivalrous.

Not all “millionaire’s rides,” however, end as happily. In June of last year, a US DEA agent who took a cab on the street and tried to resist the brigands eager to pillage his belongings was stabbed to death by several men.

Predictably, not everyone is keen on experiencing Patrick Leigh Fermor-type hijacking incidents when they take a cab, say, to the doctor or in-laws’. The norm has been to order an officially registered taxi by telephone, which, until recently, was deemed the safest way to go, especially at night. The problem is that the cab companies’ telephone lines are nearly always busy during rush hour, when one’s chances of finding a taxi are about as good as marine biology faculties in Bolivian universities.

Enter the world of digital technology and mobile phone applications, several of which have appeared in order to ease considerably the process of finding blissfully uneventful taxi rides.

Perhaps the most successful digital company to enter Bogotá transportation market is the San Francisco-based Uber, which started operating in Colombia in September of last year and now has around 500 cars affiliated to its service. As readers may know, Uber clients download the app on their phones and, with a mere tap on the screen, request a taxi that promptly picks them up at their location. The company, which runs in more than 100 cities in 40 countries, accepts only credit card payments.

In Bogotá, Uber has proved successful not only due to its efficiency and provided comfort; passengers seldom wait more than 10 minutes for an Uber car, which is of far better quality than the standard yellow taxi. Uber has also prospered due to the vital question of security.

The firm, in fact, carefully investigates potential drivers’ legal records, thus minimizing drastically the risk that passengers will encounter Falstaff-like highwaymen on their way to the airport.

Uber provides a perhaps matchless example of how free enterprise can offer creative solutions to people’s day-to-day problems. However, the picaresque state of Colombia usually doesn’t tolerate voluntary transactions between individuals that somehow override a powerful guild’s hold over the market.

Hence, the taxi industry’s pressure groups, claiming that Uber is competing disloyally, have been exerting their influence on the city of Bogotá and the Ministry of Transport in order to push the firm out of the market. Since last week, the police have routinely stopped Uber cars at several roadblocks and forced passengers out of the cars. According to the company, this has occurred under the presence and at the instigation of regular taxi drivers.

If Uber is indeed forced to close down its operations in Bogotá due to state intervention, the taxi lobby won’t be the only parasitic special interest group to benefit from the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Since the common advice for victims is to collaborate with the brigands lest one suffers the fate of the murdered DEA agent, Colombian banks began offering their clients “millionaire’s ride” insurance a few years ago. Talk about innovative collaboration between industries at the consumer’s expense.

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