Thursday, May 28, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: Going my way?

Some conflicts you can just see coming. One of them is the offensive that taxi drivers in the Mexico City metropolitan area have recently unleashed against Uber.
    The ride-sharing service was something of a mystery when it moved into town two years ago. But it’s being seen more and more as offering what traditional taxi service here isn’t exactly known for —  courtesy, reliability, safety, comfort, convenience and drivers who are screened, vetted and constantly evaluated.
    Plus they take credit cards. In fact, they require credit cards.
    Uber’s rise set off alarm bells inside the Mexico City taxi drivers union, which started lobbying the city government to boot them out, and holding press conferences to state their case.
    That case is based on the contention that Uber and similar services such as Taxify are pirate taxis.  Not like pirates. Not the equivalent to pirates. But pirates, period.
    Daniel Medina and Ignacio Rodríguez, the articulate and strident union leaders who do most of the talking for the taxistas, almost never mention Uber without adding “and Taxify and the 30,000 other pirates circulating in the city.” The jab is clear — there's no difference between Uber and the scofflaws who dress up their cars like taxis and charge people for rides.
    “We’re not against technology,” Medina said at a press conference last week, alluding to Uber’s use of smart phone technology for all its operations,  “and we’re not against competition. We’re against illegal competition.”
    The union’s point is that Uber isn’t subject to the same requirements as the traditional taxis — licenses and other fees, for example.
    Uber hasn’t responded much, preferring apparently to play rope-a-dope as the taxistas flail. Its position, though, is that it’s not a taxi service, but rather a facilitator of peer-to-peer transactions.
    Never mind that both send cars to pick up passengers and take them where they want to go. Legally, according to Uber, they’re apples and pears.
    Medina and Rodríguez had warned last week that if the the city didn’t move on the issue, there would be a “mobilization” — a protest march. They wouldn’t say when the demonstrations would begin. It turned out to be sooner than expected.
    On Monday, May 25, thousands of taxistas took to the Mexico City streets, snarling traffic and creating chaos for millions of D.F. residents.
    This may seem like a counterproductive strategy for mobilizing public support, especially for a cause as esoteric as “Fuera Uber.” I haven’t seen any polls on the issue, but my guess is that the overwhelming majority of Mexico City residents don’t care much if Uber is fuera or not.
    But you have to keep in mind that the purpose of most actions like these is not to win over the public. March organizers don’t give a damn if they alienate the public. Their goal is to strong-arm the authorities into caving. Do what we want or we’ll mess up your city.
    Despite some hints of action from city transportation officials, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera hasn’t given the taxistas what they want. Expect more demonstrations.
    Or worse. State of Mexico cities such as Tlalnepantla, Naucalpan, Atizapán and Ecatepec are where most of the 22 million people often incorrectly attributed to Mexico City proper actually live. Uber has a growing presence in that part of the metropolitan area. 
    A front page headline in this morning’s EL Universal gives an indication of how hot things might be getting there: “State of Mexico taxi drivers threaten to ‘hunt’ Uber vehicles.”
    That sounds exaggerated but it may not be, judging from a quote by one of the transportation organization's leaders who was talking about hunting down Uber cars. “If this continues,” he said, meaning Uber drivers carrying passengers, “there’s going to be serious trouble.”
    That’s thug talk. And it ignores that whatever “trouble” the people who are “hunting” Uber cars have in mind will hurt innocent drivers and passengers, not Uber.
    The situation calls for leadership from Mancera. But there’s a bigger issue at stake — how Mexico deals with progressive change, in this case the arrival of the sharing economy. It’s not the only country with vested interests resisting innovation. But it should be able to find solutions without threats of violence.