BOGOTÁ — Some debates ultimately get us all involved, and the one about whether Colombia should block that most populist of transportation options, the Uber car service, is one of them.
Across the world, city authorities issue transportation licences on the basis of particular conditions. The idea — in theory at least — is that by restricting competition and obstructing free entry into this market through licencing and other norms, the government is assuring drivers adequate revenues and consumers a decent, secure service. If taxi drivers are well paid and competition is limited, the logic goes, cars will be properly maintained and the service smooth.
But nobody in their right mind who lives and moves in the Colombian capital of Bogota would say that's how things happen here. On the contrary, most taxis are very poorly maintained. Though some drivers are professional, most aren't friendly. As for their service, most locals will say that typical practices include taking passengers to unwanted destinations and dropping them off halfway through the drive. The words "don't go that far" (Hasta allá no llego) have even become an everyday expression in our city.
That's despite the fact that city norms and the agreements drivers sign with transport authorities oblige them to take passengers where they want to go. It's not optional. The fine for breaching this can reach the equivalent of $270, and repeated violations can lead a driver to lose his licence.
And by contrast ...
Enter Uber, a platform that provides cars in mint condition, with polite and educated drivers who arrive on time and generally offer impeccable service. No cash is handled because payments are electronic. It's safe and comfortable. Though a little more expensive, its users are prepared to pay the slight premium for a better experience. Virtually no one argues the fact that it provides a better service for customers, so why are city authorities so opposed to it?
One reason at least is political, as one of our columnists recently explained. Another reason is that while the taxi syndicate is united, Uber users are individuals with hardly any corporate representation and therefore no collective political capital. Consumer assocations are practically nonexistent in Colombia, and authorities have done very little to encourage them.
If there were one (thin) defense of an otherwise indefensible sector that has worked hard to earn customer contempt it would be the degree to which Uber "exploits" its drivers. The company until now has taken 20% of their earnings, but starting in San Francisco next month Uber will eat into driver earnings by taking an unprecedented 25% share from new driver recruits. Meanwhile, the drivers are entirely responsible for the cars, which they own.
But here's why that argument is so flimsy: If Uber is somehow a pimp for taking its cut, what does that make the authorities who issue taxi permits and to the companies hiring those cab drivers? The difference between the working conditions of taxi drivers and Uber collaborators is that the former are in a much worse position, working as they do for the taxi owners and licence holders, who typically pay drivers just 40% to 50% of the daily fares collected (the "yield" as Bogotá taxis call it).
So who's the pimp now?