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.

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.


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.

Art can’t beat life: Jamaican farce

I got a partial answer to my question about Jamaican satire: life’s too funny to need it acted out. Just a few random examples from recent weeks.

Just a few days ago, a clearly frustrated mayor of Savannah la Mar in western Jamaica, Bertel Moore, blurted out that police should now “shoot first then ask questions later” when dealing with suspected criminals. He’d reacted wildly to a fast growing problem of shootings and murders in his parish, Westmoreland. Jamaicans have not all lost their marbles, and many, including local police representatives quickly condemned his position. Jamaica already has an unenviable reputation for ‘extra judicial’ killings by the police. The Gleaner wrote a stinging editorial condemning the mayor. Jibes about the “wild West” soon shot out.

We had a prominent MP, Mr. WARmington, giving signature advice to environmentalists to “go to Hell” for their temerity In trying to urge that the environment be protected in considerations of where to locate a proposed logistics hub. Not warm, at all. Really, too charming, I’d have to say. The tranquil Goat Islands are not bringing out the best in people.

Ordinary people also have their moments of silliness everyday. We met a security guard at the hospital yesterday, who was so quick to flaunt her political colors–green for the Jamaica Labour Party, pointing to her coloured uniform badge. She had no time for our joking that we were former PNP prime minister, “Patterson, P.J.”; “Not my Prime Minister,” she boldly stated. Then she sang the praises of the current JLP (“Jamaica Loving Party”, she chanted) leader, Andrew Holness: “Andrew, all the way!”. She’ll do all she can to see he prevails in the coming battle for leadership, especially if she can vote as in other elections. She proudly declared that she’d voted five times at the last general election, dancing a gleeful little jig as she told us that. If she’s typical, it’s hard to understand how apparent low turnouts occur.

Not making light of the real tragedy, how do you not marvel at Kingston’s public bus company, Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC), when a second bus burst into flames in a matter of two weeks? We’d heard that the first one did not carry working extinguishers, and passengers would be well advised to travel with water, just in case. I liked it that an on looker had to tell the bus driver that the back of bus was ablaze: locals know the buses often belch out a lot of smoke, so it would’ve been hard for the driver to notice.

This during the same time when several high schools decided to discipline students for not following dress codes by sending them home, or for lateness by locking them out of school. I hope they didn’t have to take one of the JUTC buses. Talk about wanting to fire up the youths.

Police this week searched the jail cell of Vybz Kartel, a well-known dance hall artiste, and found it had ‘contraband’–and that’s not a backing group. Naturally, the banned items included cell phones 🙂 Really? But, also thumb drives and DVDs. Where are the good old thumb screws, cigarettes, files and pliers?

Why make things up, when life offers such rich material? We clearly don’t need sketches on TV or theatre when we have brilliant comedy surrounding us. Now that YouTube is rampant, it would be better for the government to give every citizen a smartphone and let them record these incidents for submission to the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) could then circulate them with an official seal of ‘MAD in Jamaica’ and circulate them to the world. Have to think of innovative ways to sell brand Jamaica.

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