Like most Londoners, I was brought up with respect for taxi drivers. As a child, the ability to navigate with precision through the 1500km² mass of one-way streets and road works that make up the capital struck me – in fact still strikes me – with absolute awe. Everyone born in London knows the three to four years it takes cabbies to complete ‘The Knowledge’, the training in which prospective drivers attempt to learn every street in the capital. The black-taxi driver is equipped with incredible skills of navigation, universally respected by everyone who lives in the city.
When Uber came to the UK our reverence for black cabs took on a kind of nationalist resistance: “How can we let a foreign company come here and displace our cabbies?” It upset us that armed, with a smartphone and a satnav, anyone can get in a car and challenge the professionals for their jobs. The newspapers were full of suspicion and accusations for the San Francisco-based company, and the name Uber became synonymous with malpractice and corporate bullying.
It was an inevitable conclusion, however, and our resistance was hopeless. Black-cab prices had become so high that for most of us they had become rare a luxury. London cabbies needed new competition, and the rest of us needed to cheaper taxis. Before long, most of us gave in and downloaded the app, including me. But we didn’t lose our reverence for our black cabbies.
I moved to Cairo a couple of years ago. Familiar with the extortionate transport costs of London, it was exciting to live somewhere where taxis were still affordable. In Cairo, taxis are not the privilege of the rich, but used by everyone – barring the very rich and the exceptionally poor. And they are everywhere; waiting for a taxi is something that can take an age in London but in Cairo I’ve never waited more than a minute.I came to love Cairo taxis. My struggling Arabic improved greatly with regular chats with the drivers, and I learnt about Egyptian culture much faster than I would have if I drove everywhere solo. Like all interactions, some were less pleasant, but on the whole I became very fond of Cairo taxis, and quickly became reliant on them. These days when I go back to London, it’s one of the main things I miss from Cairo.
Then Uber arrived. Like in London the interest was slow to build, with most people unsure of the new idea. But soon more people got on board, and became popular. It was followed with protests. As in cities all over the world, taxi drivers took to the streets to protest the newcomers, and, as elsewhere, it was not entirely obvious what they were protesting for. But unlike anywhere else I had seen, their protest garnered no support from the people I spoke to – in fact, the opposite was true.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with preferring an air-conditioned Hyundai to a ’77 Tofas Sahin with broken seats; and I understand why females feel safer with a named driver. If you want to use the app then I’m not trying to stop you (you can even use my promo code: eddieb1641ue.) If Uber pays the same tax as white-cab drivers – which they currently don’t – then nobody has the right to stop them competing.
But the level of vitriol directed towards taxi drivers shocked me. In the comments section, under the news of the protest, readers were filled with nothing but hate for the drivers: “I will always pick Uber or Careem over those scumbags anytime of the day even if it's illegal,” read one.
“Cairo taxi drivers you deserve all worst things will happen to you [SIC],” said another.
“I had a taxi driver in Cairo decide he wasn't going my way after he already let me into the cab… I wasn't about to let him get away with it, so I started screaming ‘edinee zahbet’ [give me an officer]…One came…and hailed another taxi for me; but not before I had the satisfaction of seeing that creep's taxi being impounded,” proudly proclaimed an American resident, to a chorus of ‘likes’. Of the hundreds of comments, I can count on one hand those that expressed any sympathy for the drivers defending their livelihood.
I write this as a foreigner, and as a male. Perhaps my experiences are different from most. I’ve certainly never had to deal with sexual harassment – although this might be a wider problem, not limited to taxi drivers. My good experiences in Cairo taxis far outweigh the bad. Of course I’ve been in taxis before where the driver didn’t know the streets – like the cabbie who took me around Mohandesin for 15 minutes before confessing he didn’t know where Maadi was – but I’ve been in taxis where I’ve been astounded at their knowledge of the roads. Cairo is a difficult city to navigate, and to be with a taxi driver who knows his route, down to the last pot-hole, is certainly impressive. One of the most frustrating things about Uber drivers is that they blindly follow their satnav, and feel no obligation to know the roads at all.
And yes, it’s frustrating when a driver doesn’t want to go your way, but given the traffic in some areas, I’ve never thought it to be unfair. London cabbies do the same, and in the past famously refused to ‘go south of the river’ where they thought they wouldn’t get a fare; an annoyance for those living in South London in 1980, but nowadays a fondly-recalled affidavit for the black-cab London cabbie. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their car and they can go where they want, and if they want to smoke like a chimney and listen to music at full volume then that’s their right: just as I have the right to take another cab.
And obviously I’ve had arguments with cabbies, but also many enjoyable conversations. For that matter, I’ve also had some very enjoyable arguments, and once all was said and done I’ve seldom left a taxi on bad terms. A recent fight between me and the driver over using the meter had him explaining his position quite clearly: that prices had increased so much in recent years but the meter had not gone up in almost three years, and even then only by a couple of pounds. He pointed but how many extra taxis there are on the streets these days, how fuel prices were going up and customers were going down. Uber, he said, was just the latest in a list of new challenges. In the end I gave him the fare he wanted plus a tip.
I don’t see how this vilification of taxi drivers is justified. It’s obvious that Cairo’s transport infrastructure is lacking, but we can hardly blame the drivers who have been keeping it moving at all for so long. Life is tough for most Egyptians these days, and drivers are among those hit the hardest. Are taxi drivers really a fair target for our frustration? Or are attacks on local drivers, in preference to American-based companies like Uber, to do with something else?
Edmund Bower is Editor-in-Chief of Maadi Messenger.
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