Human technology and the future of metered taxis in South Africa

CAPE TOWN—The Cape Town International Airport is a well-designed fort if it is not raining. While it is considerably pedestrian friendly on the surface, there is no shelter for someone walking out on a very hot or rainy day toward the MyCiTi bus terminal or the approved metered taxi bay. Nevertheless, at least there is a pedestrian crossing. (Photo: O H Mokwena)

Arriving at Cape Town International Airport raised a few eyebrows for me. Not only has it been a while, but not much has really changed. Wet, cold and probably unpredictably hot was how the weather treated me on arrival. Nevertheless, walking out of the airport I could hear “taxi”, “taxi”, “do you need a taxi?” asked a gentleman in a booth. His job is to represent the register metered taxis which operate from the Airport. The drivers are all members of the local associations, and the airport has allocated them a small unsheltered terminal which is within walking distance from the airport. In this piece I share some notes on the human technology hypothesis and some industry insights from a meter taxi driver and an Uber driver– both of them had incredible insights.

Only one gentleman said he would be happy to take the money you’d use for a full-tank of petrol to drive about 300km with a 1.4 litre engine, to take me just 8km outside of the Airport.

Chapter 1: When distance doesn’t leak from an hourglass

Out the gates, and into the weather I looked at my Uber ride: 12 minutes, R320.00 for an 8km trip in less than 20 minutes. This was my natural option, until a voice simply asked me if taking a taxi was what I’ll be doing. Certainly you’ve had to choose between something that you normally use and something a bit unusual. Usually, taking the MyCiTi bus was a prime option: the 1h20 minute trip would include travelling from the airport to the Civic Centre, then going back where I came from toward West Beach. Price wise it was fair, including the price of buying a new one-day pass.

Standing in a brown jacket, striped golf-shirt and a pair of dark blue jeans, a Xhosa man with a big smile spoke through his gap  to me and asked: “where are you going sir?” It was an irreplaceable moment. I found my  eyes leaning away from the screaming screen begging me to update my payment card, double-check the pick-up location, and connect a journey with a stranger. Yet here he was, asking me how much I’d pay for a trip. We started the negotiation and priced the journey at R350.00– most metered taxi drivers said no. Only one gentleman said he would be happy to take the money you’d use for a full-tank of petrol to drive about 300km with a 1.4 litre engine, to take me just 8km outside of the Airport. Time and my physical condition were an important factor including the luggage and weather dynamics. In this case, breaking my hour-glass was not an option.

While low-cost carriers will grow in South Africa, more people could potentially catch flights but find the extra time or cost inconvenience from the airports extremely inconvenient. This could be supplemented by a more experiential approach to airport accessibility, and planning because at least in Gauteng the Gautrain makes the trip more interesting and fundamentally worthwhile. MyCiTi just needs to spread its wings more aggressively and dedicate a lane to the bus: really dedicate a lane for the airport corridor– if not invest in a light rail service (i.e. tram). Without deviating too much, metered taxis are an essential part of the airport mobility and access economy. Perhaps the role of customer’s and operators’ value systems hasn’t been considered with the kind of depth that is necessary.

TECHNOLOGY ENHANCED—While metered taxis are viewed as these out of date operations, they are more clearly becoming more and more integrated into the mainstream payment and communications environment. (Photo: O H Mokwena)

Chapter 2: Technology and the surgical operations on human flesh for labour productivity

When he works, he takes 100% of his hours’ worth because no one takes commission; no one takes his hours; and his worth remains intact and in his control.

Considering that the meter taxi industry is under threat from the ride-hailing applications, one may expect that these drivers would be desperate for any trip. This is far from the truth. Metered taxi drivers are in a very different mobility economy as compared to drivers of ride-hailing services. In many ways they have control over three important assets: (1) time, (2) productivity, and their (3) vehicle. All of these contribute the longevity of their business in terms of income and cost of operations; how many passengers they accept per-day with respect to their total take-home; and the manner in which they drive, care for and pay-off their vehicle(s). Since travel demand is all-day every day, not having control over one’s hours is a big disadvantage.

A metered taxi driver educated me at length about how for him it was important to grab some personal time to refresh, get clean and spend time with his family. When he works, he takes 100% of his hours’ worth because no one takes commission; no one takes his hours; and his worth remains intact and in his control. While ride-hailing drivers have impacted their operations, metered taxis operators at the airport are not too fussy about it. He only wishes that the metered taxi community could collectively decide on a solution that ensures they are well-off and more resilient in future. In my conversation with him I asked him to approach a university to develop an application for them and earn no more than 1% commission or nothing at all. This would be a win-win situation for the institution and the operators.

Already the metered taxi industry is becoming technologically enhanced. Without cash, I transacted via a PIOS platform hosted by Nedbank: which has revolutionised the sector. One driver had the tool and took the payment on behalf of the driver who will be driving me. The payment is rather secure and provides critical details about the purchase, date, time, price, and the driver concerned. In future, just like the French and German metered taxi clusters South African operators will adopt the technology and offer trackable trips, secure payments and even better quality services than the ride-hailing incumbents now. The metered taxi drivers felt more dignified in their service, not only because they controlled their time, but also as a result of the amount of cash they could make per day without anyone eating from them. Here the blade of technology could have cut them dry out of the airport– but it didn’t: it in fact stitches them up. As a customer, I learnt that there is a human factor, a personal touch, which you find in these metered taxis– every driver has a story: and it is not digital.

TABLE VIEW—A massively well placed bus terminal is placed here for the MyCiTi bus services, with the incumbent operator Golden Arrow buses in the foreground. Both operators present level boarding, and Golden Arrow has invested in low-floor urban buses. There is a fascinating element to these operators because both of them serve the city and its areas very well.

Chapter 3: Filling in the blanks to make ends meet

What stood out from our conversation was his belief that being an Uber driver is all about supporting the MyCiTi bus in ways that expand how the system works.

Waiting outside a mall, cold and windy Cape Town had something to say: “this is inefficient, if only we had a bicycle to make this trip work”. This shopping complex had a busy MyCiTi bus terminal just outside, with a taxi-rank I didn’t see. But the bus trip into the neighbourhood was infrequent and unavailable at the time of my departure. So I requested an Uber. The driver struggled to navigate to the correct entrance of the mall, while the app couldn’t help but say 1 minute away for about 5 minutes or more. Making sure the number plate is in mind, my cell phone battery was moving closer to 2% faster than ever. At this point the conversation with the metered taxi driver started to emerge: “what if my battery dies and this trip just doesn’t go my way?”. This is a standard question for all taxi services, not specific to an Uber driver. When he arrived we started talking about his business and what makes him work.

First things, first: it is not easy being a ride-hailing driver. Not only is it a question of being on high-alert for every other notification of a ride nearby, but also the fact that there are so many other players trying to catch the same fish with you. Some are driving full-time, while others only come in once in a while or on weekends if they don’t moonlight during the week for a few hours. Furthermore, many of the full-time drivers, he said, do not own the cars they drive. They drive for an owner with a pre-agreed weekly pay. Those who drive their vehicles they own distaste the 20-something percent commission which these apps take as a charge for conveniently having access to potential riders. What stood out from our conversation was his belief that being an Uber driver is all about supporting the MyCiTi bus in ways that expand how the system works. He said that the MyCiti bus is much better than minibus taxis, but it lacks full coverage. So as a driver, he usually takes these connections that no other services can complete due to their fixed routes. However, many of these drivers are lost in a reinforcing loop of trip demands pressuring them to loose 25 of the 100 hours they invest to commission and if they are contracted to drive for someone else they are tied to loosing even more hours. This forces them to work twice as hard to make a decent buck in some areas, while in others they relish in the spoils of a hyper-convenient solution. (I wish there was more, but he didn’t want to talk too much about his working conditions.)

* This is an unusually long essay, but it felt so right to write it like this. Thanks to both the metered taxi guys at the Cape Town International Airport, and the Uber driver who was so open and kind to all my questions. Also must acknowledge the superb service from the MyCiTi staff in helping me with a lot of personal insights and information about the service (more on this someother time). Finally, thank you for reading there so much to share in this season between Rustenburg, Cape Town, Mahikeng, Polokwane and Ga-Rankuwa, in addition to Lyon (France) and other places I’m yet to see and share. 

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