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While farmers and fishers may show their KMT attitude through a dogged determination to go on, you see it’s full-disdain cousin in taxi drivers.

20130926-054336.jpgMany people give thanks after taking a taxi ride–mainly, for getting there alive.

Before laying into taxi drivers’ bad side, let’s be thankful that people are there to provide transport to most of the population, at almost all times, and to most places, and at fares that are reasonable. But, at what cost? Taxi drivers control many traffic conditions.

Taxi drivers are notorious in Jamaica, for good reasons. Their instinctive stopping and starting to, pick up or offload people is often the reason for a line of traffic building up. They switch lanes with little apparent regard for rules of the road or other users of the road. They may ignore road regulations, like stop lights or turning lanes. They mayoverload vehicles: but, they must do this with the tacit willingness of passengers. If passengers complain, they don’t do it loud enough or with enough conviction. Passengers stay, like sardines, carrying whatever else they need on their journeys.

Taxi drivers drive too fast, most of the time. But, the fare system is partly to blame. Taxi fares cover routes and are for set maximum distances. No meters. So, full car is more money. Faster trip is more money. When taxi drivers have passengers, they want to finish the rides fast and get new riders. When they are empty you can tell: they crawl along or they wait at the terminus till full. In some cities abroad, the taxi drivers love traffic jams or circuitous routes so that the meter keeps ticking over.

In Jamaica, the driver with the hand pointing ahead is the local version of the ‘for hire’ sign. When I think about it, that’s one simple, sustainable aspect of local taxis. It’s not much, though.

I should not confuse taxi drivers and minibus drivers. Though they are similar, the latter deserve their own day in court.

Taxi drivers are survivors. Some are owners; some rent cars. Those who have nicer vehicles may get different clients, maybe hired or chartered for special trips. They take vehicles, which would often be condemned in other places, and make them into chariots of hire. What if the window won’t go down, or go up? What if the doors in the rear can only be opened from the outside? Note the flexible right shoulders drivers have developed over years of curling them backward to pull door handles.

Give them credit, though. I rarely see taxi drivers yelling obscenities out of their cars. If they are cursing, it must be quietly or just so that passengers hear.

Taxis in Jamaica are not for everyone. Unlike New York or Washington, you don’t see many business people hailing taxis: they have their own cars, or on occasion have official cars. Well-dressed party goers don’t take taxis. Taxis are for those who either have no car or need to move and do not or cannot take a bus.

Taxis are official, unless they are ‘robots’ (unlicensed). No, Jamaica has not leapfrogged over Japan and invented electronic cars. We just have a lot of unlicensed taxis. Officials taxis have red licence plates; unofficial ones have white plates, like most private vehicles. Take them at your peril, some would say. I don’t know if there is any difference in the ride experience. The fares are the same. Let’s not discuss insurance. I don’t think this is in the mind of the passengers. Much like the absence of seat belts. If the drivers have insurance, I’m not sure what it would really cover.

But, many people face simple choices: use taxis or get nowhere. You cannot get all haughty and take an express train from one end of the island to another. Most communities won’t be served directly buses, even though bus services are widespread. You probably can’t move faster than by taxi. I’ve never heard of a taxi driver turning down a fare, though if you’ve a big load you may have trouble. I’m never surprised to see a taxi with a weed whacker or some planks sticking out of the window.

Sure, the taxi drivers can be thieves and overcharge. They don’t offer luxury or much style. Music may be an option, but don’t bank on it.

Jamaican taxis don’t generally offer door-to-door service: they tend to stick to routes. So, you get onto the main road and get in at a convenient spot and get off at a point near to your destination. You may need to mix routes, and so have to pay more than once.

Once upon a time, taxis in Kingston had brand colours, such as checker or yellow. No longer. Most taxis are white, because most imported cars were white. Some taxis are grey. Colour is not really that important, though. If you’re picky, I don’t think taxis are for you. Then again, let’s see what happens if you’re running late or your car breaks down.

If politicians really wanted to feel like the bulk of their electorate, I’d suggest they spend a day being driven around in taxis.

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