Problems on hold
In 2009, Cairenes greeted with joy the new white taxis that were introduced to their streets. The white taxis were foreseen to eventually phase out the dilapidated black-and-white ones which had run through the capital for many decades. These taxis had become the scourge of Cairenes because of their decrepit condition, non-working meters and unqualified drivers. The shiny new white vehicles of 2009 brought with them a changed driver attitude, and worked to put an end to some of the chronic problems of Cairo taxis. Proud of their new taxis, the drivers worked to maintain their cars in clean, good shape and were keen to run the taximeter for which the government set a new tariff that was fair to both taxi operator and passenger.
Today, however, we appear to be in a setback. Not a few taxi drivers have stopped using the meter to determine the fare; a passenger is only alerted to this when the driver starts bargaining for the fare as soon as the trip begins, or when he or she notices that the taximeter is idle. In reply to why the meter is not running, a driver typically and defiantly retorts that the meter is not working.
Among the civilised countries in the world, only Egypt can lay claim to this absurd situation which irks taxi passengers as well as drivers. Passengers claim they are being taken advantage of and that the law is not being enforced to grant them their rights as consumers. Drivers argue that they are victims of oppression and injustice. In the absence of law enforcement people tend to take the law in their own hands, which is a sure recipe for chaos.
The taxi crisis is déjà vu. The tariff currently in force—or supposedly in force—was decided some seven years ago and was never revisited to keep pace with market changes and spiralling cost of living. The tariff is now inadequate and fails to provide taxi drivers or operators with a fair return that would cover operational and wear and tear costs, let alone generate revenue. In the absence of official inspection of taximeters, taxi drivers have imposed their own ‘justice’ by disabling the meters and forcing their own tariff on passengers, or by tampering with the meters to increase the fare. I have many times faced such situations and stood helpless before them; and I am not alone.
I already broached in Watani’s editorial of 18 July 2010 the topic of the taxi predicament under the title “The shiny white taxi” and hailed the introduction of the new, clean, safe white taxis. I applauded the fact that the meters applied a tariff that was adequate and left both passengers and drivers satisfied. The then new tariff replaced an older one which had been set in 1996 and was never reassessed or updated. Before the tariff was reset in 2009, clashes between passengers and taxi drivers were a common sight. In my editorial I warned of the consequences of failing to regularly reassess the tariff basing on market changes and living costs. I pointed out that failure to do so would ultimately lead drivers to disable the meters and themselves compute the trip fare according to whim, renewing thus the clashes with the passengers.
I was not prophesying back then; I merely anticipated that the notorious ineptitude of the Egyptian administration, coupled with lack of justice, would inevitably lead the drivers to trifle with the law. It is a fact today that the white taxis which were once shiny have become cranky and suffer from negligence and poor maintenance. The drivers have foregone their once newly-found gallantry and gone back to the insolence of the old days of the black-and-white taxis. And true to the unique Egyptian trait of disregarding rules and laws, no proper technical inspection or follow-up is applied to the taxis by the relevant authorities. The rules and laws are all there, but are mere ink on paper. So this is where we stand today.
Can we hope for an awakening that would reform the system and bring back justice to taxi passengers and drivers? Justice for the drivers would translate into reassessing and updating the tariff to fit the 2016 market realities. And justice for the passengers could be fulfilled through surprise road checks on taxis to monitor their compliance with meter specifications. Can we put in place legislation that would stipulate periodic reassessment of the tariff, in order to avoid a third repeat of the crisis? If we do not, we should brace ourselves for in time welcoming a yellow taxi to replace the white, then a red to replace the yellow, and so on. As if the colour change was the key factor! As the Egyptian proverb goes: “the worst calamities are those that are outright comical”.
25 September 2016