Robot taxis: more grey than checkered life

Jamaica has a poor record in providing facilities for those with disabilities. For that reason, I am wondering how we can help those who have vision problems to see better.

Jamaica has a form of unauthorized taxis, called ‘robots’, locally. Their discerning feature is that they carry fare-paying passengers, without the requisite registrations, including a highly visible red license plate. They are also often easy to see (if you are not visually impaired) as their drivers often hang a hand out of the window with a wad of bills (fares taken) or pointing in the general direction they are headed. At various points along roads, usually at well-known stopping points for passengers, i.e. at a corner, these cars can be seen waiting or loading passengers and their wares. But, clearly, they are not as visible as I think. The police do not seem to notice them, so they are rarely stopped from doing their business. That’s, actually, not a bad thing for the Jamaican travelling public. It’s clear that the demand for public transport is excessive. In the Kingston corporate area, where there is a government-owned bus service, buses are often jammed packed, especially during rush hours. Registered taxis are also often full, and they operate as ride sharing vehicles, not for single riders. Robots fill a gap in terms of the overall demand, but also in tailoring rides to those who do not want to share. Jamaica does not have Uber, but we have some ‘on demand’ taxi services. Robots also eat into that business, but that too is to the benefit of the traveler. Example.

My car has a leaking transmission and is ‘on vacation’ at the service station. (In somewhat typical Jamaican fashion, I had been asked if I was going to take it home, even though the service provider did not advise that I drive the car 🙂 ) Fortunately, my transport needs are not many–I’m a ‘taxi service’ for my teenager during the weekday afternoons, mainly. I love it! I also have some needs to visit my father mid-island, and I need to get to golf courses to practise and play. With my car in dock, I was fortunate that my daughter had just started her spring break, so my ‘taxi’ duties were done. But, my other needs remained.

At the weekend, my wife had told me to “take a taxi” when I needed to make a 6.30 start time in a golf tournament. I got the number of a registered taxi and he picked me up at 5.30 and I was at the golf course in plenty of time. I thought the fare a bit steep, but beggars can’t be choosers. Yesterday, I needed to make another appointment. I called the Saturday taxi man again; no reply, after 3 attempts and some voice messages. My housekeeper gave me another number and I called it; within seconds I had arranged my ride for 1.15. At 1.10 a car arrived at my house and I went to get in. It had no taxi markings and no red plates. “Oh, you’re a robot?” I asked. Not really, the driver told me: “I don’t run up and down looking for passengers; I give people rides from the supermarket and such.” I thought about the distinctions. He got a call as I got in; it was his daughter: “Mummy’s pressure’s high and I just took her to the doctor. I’ll reach you soon.” He explained that his wife was both diabetic and suffering from high blood pressure; she’d had problems at the weekend needed medicine, and maybe a reaction to that her pressure had shot up. He said he’d get his daughter from the university, once he’d dropped me at my destination. We chatted on the way there. He was from a district close to my father’s original area. I got to my destination in good time, and took the driver’s phone number in case I needed a ride home and he was free. I wished him and his family well.

As it was, I got a ride home with one of the people with whom I had had to work. On the way home, she needed gas and was searching for cash. I offered to pay. She refused. I pondered the difference between my paying for gas, for a ride offered by a friend, and the fare charged by the taxi driver who’d taken me earlier. I could easily categorize each driver as someone ‘doing a favour’ to an acquaintance of a ride in their vehicle. It looked more grey than black and white. The whole realm of ride sharing is that way, if money gets involved. I didn’t make any judgements.

One man, eking out a living. Wife sick. Daughter at university. Life to live. Futures to protect.

Running a taxi service comes with obligations and usually has insurance and other features to protect riders, such as verification of drivers and their records. Registration of the activity should be with those features in place…but are they always? If a friend passes me on the road and offers me a ride, do I stop to check that his/her insurance is fully in order or that he/she has no traffic violations outstanding? Never, is quite likely. Take a risk? We do it all the time.

The Transport Minister is going to expand taxi routes, I read this morning, and open up another 2500 licences.

The taxi industry in Jamaica is not pure. It’s known to have many owners who are police officers. That partly explains some of the ‘blindness’.

If we had Uber or its equivalent, we’d have legitimized our ‘robots’. Many people (other than registered taxi businesses) think ride-sharing services like Uber are the best thing since sliced Easter bun. Funny place, the world.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “Robot taxis: more grey than checkered life”

  1. The lack of regulation and enforcement is dangerous. One of my students was just robbed at gunpoint in a taxi on Tuesday night. She was robbed of everything (laptop, phone, cash) and frightened badly. She was leaving campus after working all night and took what she thought was a route taxi. It was instead two men (one of whom she initially thought was a woman from far because of his hair, which is why she got in the taxi) and they turned off the route claiming police were up ahead. This is when they assaulted her and left her on the road. She made a report to police. So this is not just a matter of an underground economy, it can be a matter of life and death. I see the police cracking down more lately and hear that from taxi drivers, but it is obviously not enough.


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