Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities' Taxis

Stateside, I can count the number of taxis I've taken in my life on one hand, as I've almost always had access to an automobile and lived in places where taxis were relatively uncommon; even without a car, it would hardly ever occur to me to take a cab, as I work at home and live close to the Bay Area's BART subway system and AC Transit buses.

In Buenos Aires and Santiago, though, I take taxis with some frequency because it's often the easiest way to get around and, in Buenos Aires especially, it's still very cheap. In Santiago, given the appreciating Chilean peso, it's considerably more expensive but with limited time, on an assignment last week, I took several cabs around town.

It's a journalists' (and travel writers') convention to seek out taxi drivers' opinions on almost everything except, apparently, transportation, but I like to talk with drivers about their jobs. In both cities, conspicuous black-and-yellow vehicles are the norm, but there the comparisons nearly end.

In the highly regulated Buenos Aires market, where fares are low and drivers consistently work 12-hour shifts, the consensus is that only those who own their cabs can make any sort of living at it; even then, only the fact that many if not most cabs run on price-controlled natural gas, rather than gasoline, makes them at all profitable. It's not uncommon to see long lines of cabs at service stations with natural gas pumps (as depicted in the photo above), but periodic shortages could become more acute this winter as cooking and heating needs raise demand. Drivers negotiated a fare increase with authorities a couple months ago and if it takes effect by winter's beginning, rates and wages could rise, but a switch to gasoline (most engines can use both fuels) could erode any increase in income for the drivers.

In Santiago, though, bottlenecks in the so far ineffectual Transantiago public transportation reform have led to overcrowding on both slow-moving buses and the far more efficient Metro. It's a positive sign that bicycle commuters are more common than in the past, but at the same time more and more suburbanites are using their cars to get to work despite vehicle restrictions that will soon take effect to control air pollution in the city's stagnant autumn air.

All this works to the advantage of Santiago cabbies since, as one told me last week, the prosperous city "has lots of people with money who can afford to take taxis" and avoid the overcrowded public buses and trains. While it may be a good time to be a cab driver in Santiago, passengers there still can't, to my knowledge, take a TV-equipped taxi to amuse themselves with cartoons while stuck in traffic--as they can in Buenos Aires.

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