Moscow outlaws unofficial taxis

(Moscow) We wanted the headline to read “The passing of the impromptu cab” but in modern day search engine optimization that wouldn’t play so well.

A time honoured tradition will close at the end of this year as officials have declared that it will be illegal to stick out your thumb and catch a quick ride starting in January 2012. It’s a shame really as perhaps no other city in the world had perfected such an efficient system of citizen helping citizen to travel quickly from point A to point B.

Moscow evening traffic, summer 2011. (Photo: Mendeleyev Journal)

Here is how it worked: You needed to go somewhere but didn’t want to hike off to the underground Metro or catch a slow moving bus. It wasn’t even necessary to stick out a thumb really as just standing on the street looking as if you needed a ride usually worked. Before long a driver would pull over and ask where you were going. If he or she was going your way a price would be negotiated and off you’d go.

Citizen taxis to the rescue! It worked for you and gave the driver some extra cash for petrol.  Pocket change in most cases, but a service was rendered for both parties. It won’t be pocket change if caught after January as a driver caught taking money without a special taxi license will be fined from 1,000 rubles and up to a maximum of 10,000 rubles depending on the number of infractions and the location. Officials say that fines will be used to help improve Moscow roads. We’ll see.

Advocates of the new law point to Moscow’s excellent public transportation systems and argue that officials have safety in mind and one cannot argue the possible dangers when citizens trust strange drivers they’ve never met. Proponents say that licensed taxi drivers are better trained and vetted before grant of a license. Having ridden official taxi cars and knowing how most official licenses are obtained in this city, those claims are funny but not true. Besides, I’ve never met the licensed taxi driver before accepting a ride and most of them drive no better than the average citizen.

Opponents say that this will drive up the prices of the city’s licensed taxi services. Have you ever tried to find or call an official taxi in Moscow? Good luck, the wait can be for hours and there is no guarantee that a taxi will arrive at all. At least the impromptu citizen taxi system was fast and goodness knows there is an endless supply of almost empty Ladas on the streets every day.

Perhaps the coming Olympics and profits of official taxi companies are in reality what officials had in mind. Just as small neighborhood markets and street kiosks are being swept away, the winners are big business owners with Kremlin and City Hall connections. The consumer is left stranded while regulation and control of the simple life marches on to the tune of modernization.

Muscovites often ignore new laws (they happily ignore some of the old laws too) so it will take time in making the adjustment to life without private/citizen taxi services.

No matter how you look at it, this marks the end of an era.