Taxi! All hail, Uber? Jamaica needs a public transport shake-up-June 18, 2021

In a brewing story, it seems that Uber has started operatiing its ride-sharing business in Jamaica. The brew is that it’s not clear this has begun with full authorization from Jamaica’s transport regulatory body. Still, several people have been excitedly sharing their early experiences with Uber-easy booking, lower fares, apparently safe door-to-door service, on time, etc. Most views are that this is a needed shake-up in the Jamaican public transport environment, which is plagued by an inefficient and debt-ridden public bus operation in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, by a range of mainly crazed and often lawless minibuses and taxis in the same area, plus similar private operators in the rest of the country.

Uber has been a disrupter whereever it has begun operations. I can’t see things being different in Jamaica.

Simply put, in Jamaica, minibuses and taxis are the bane of many people’s lives and despised and distrusted in great measure. Many believe this private sector activity is a cover for much criminal activity and safety issues, especially for females are a major concern. But, the partial sigh of relief heard in Jamaica this week made me think about what taxis and taxi drivers represent in other countries. On a scale of 0 (horrible) to 10 (wonderful), where do some stand?

Jamaica (0): Taxis/minibuses-worst-driven vehicles on the roads; taxi drivers-often referred to a ‘germs’; despised distrusted, though on-demand services can be good. Situation worsened by rampant illegal or not-fully authorized operators, without designated licence plates-commonly called ‘robots’. Too often, we find taxis and minbuses as part of accidents or other infractions, including fights with police or other law enforcers. They are often over crowded and generally are not for single person use. They generally observe few if any rules of the road, stop anywhere to pick up and drop off, and tend to make parking ‘stands’ where they like, especially at/around petrol stations. Things like meters and identification credentials are as rare as a vehicle that is pristine and inviting. No distinguishing features, other than red licence plate for authorized operators-no taxi signs, no standard colours but should carry a chequered stripe (Jamaica used to have yellow cabs and cabs with checkered marking into the 1960s.) Now, most are idenfiable as white Probox cars. Passengers can sit anywhere, including in the trunk/boot. Taxi operations are cut-throat and driver behaviour reflects a common outcome for such situations-survival of the fittest. (We’ll put aside the issues of ownership and whether association with law enforcement or criminals are key factors in how businesses are run.)

England (10): London is renowned for its ‘black’ taxis and to be a driver means passing the toughest street knowledge test (‘The Knowledge’) that requires about 2 years of training to master how to get between any two points in an area of about 25,000 streets, whic requires all cabbies to navigate between any two points in the city entirely from memory. Created in 1865 for horse-drawn carriages, the Knowledge has survived the automobile and London’s explosive growth into a global city. These days, though, technology is presenting the Knowledge with new challenges, with GPS commonly in use by other types of carriers (including Uber). I’ve never know taxis to be driven as if by Kamikazes, or being serial law breakers. Fares are never an issue as all rides are metered. Private for-hire services are also common all over the UK and are generally also of good service quality and safety. No seat is available for passengers in the front, which has space for luggage, and a glass separator is between driver and passengers. Black taxis in London are custom-made for passenger carriage. (Technically, it’s against the law for you to yell “Taxi!” to get their attention. If you see a cab with a lit sign, just hold out your arm to signal them.)

Germany (10): My first encounter with German taxis left me stunned as a shiny, clean Mercedes pulled up as I waited at a taxi rank. Courteous drivers, with credentials visibly displayed and meter working. Germany is well-organized and stopping anywhere is not the norm, instead uning designated places, including bus stops or taxi stands are stations, hotels etc.

Turkey (3): I was kidnapped by a taxi driver at Istanbul airport. Enough said. When I visited Ankara, I took taxis to get to meetings and was often stunned that my drivers saw no problem disregarding basic road regulations to get me to my destinations. I’ve been driven at speed the wrong way down one-way streets, and a few trips along sidewalks to make the ‘road’ passable.

Brazil (7): All the good things one wants to see, including single colour for taxis, signs, meters, driver ID. Our drivers were always polite and no issues or apparent risks with how they transported people and luggage. Good at respecting requests for later/another pick-up.

USA (8): New York City and its famous yellow cabs are reliable, safe and generally not problematic. All good features like meters, driver ID, vehicles that are fit-for-purpose. Washington DC has several taxi companies operating within the jurisdiction; generally not allowed to operate outside except for trips to airports outside the jurisdiction. Maryland and Virginia have a couple of reliable large taxi companies that operate with same general geogrpahical rules as DC. Dulles Airport is special, as only certian ‘Dulles Flyer’ taxis can routinely carry from the airport (but cannot routinely take fares back to airport after drop off).

Thailand (6): Tuk-tuks are sole mode of public transport in Bangkok and other cities in Thailand. Tuktuks are the successor to the earlier cycle rickshaws, known in Thai as “Sam Lor” (literally ‘three wheels’). Tuktuks are the successor to the earlier cycle rickshaws, known in Thai as “Sam Lor” (literally ‘three wheels’). Sam Lors were introduced to Thailand in 1933, although shortly they were banned from the main streets due to safety reasons. Fun to ride in. Safe. Multicoloured and easy to see. No AC! 🙂

None of these other places in industrial countries have private minibus operators, like Jamaica. Public bus services are the other form of mass public transport on roads.

I’ve noted before that Jamaica’s current situation replicates a stage often seen in industrial countries. It precedes a massive shake up in road transport operations that often has cut-throat operation, including violence to protect routes.

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. :)