The Many Roles of Lima’s Informal Taxi Drivers

Lima | 02/19/2013 11:03am
Manuel Vigo | Informal City Dialogues

The sprawling city of Lima couldn’t function without its taxi fleet, more than half of which is informal. Photo credit: Manuel Vigo

Becoming a taxi driver in the Peruvian capital is a multi-step process. Step one: Buy a plastic taxi sign. Step two: Place it on your dashboard.

You are now driving one of the city’s 230,000 taxis.

To give that number some perspective, consider that New York City has only 13,000 licensed cabs. According to Lima officials, over 60 percent the capital’s taxi fleet is informal. During rush hour it’s easy to feel its sheer volume drowning the streets in a cacophony of horns and car alarms, squeezing through impossibly tight gaps in traffic and selectively choosing which laws to obey.

Lima’s taxis perfectly exemplify how supply and demand works in this city. The absence of meters means that the price of each ride is negotiated in advance with the driver, who must take into account the distance to your destination, the current traffic, and perhaps who you, the rider, are. If a price can’t be settled, no problem – another cab has already pulled up, ready to start the haggling process again.

Virtually anyone can become an informal taxi driver in Lima — all you need is a car and a sign. Photo credit: Manuel Vigo

Lima’s cab drivers play many roles. They are the city’s roving psychologists, political sounding boards and sports commentators. The inside of their vehicles are extensions of their personalities — some cover their dashboards with ornate mats or toy cars; others hang ornaments from their rearview mirrors indicating their alliance to a particular local soccer team.

They are an integral part of Lima’s daily life, often traveling to places where the city’s private buses don’t run, or transporting cargo that wouldn’t be allowed on those buses. Earlier this month, a driver apologized to me for the strong smell inside of his cab, explaining he had just come back from hauling fresh fish from one of the city’s docks.

The ease of becoming a cab driver also means an opportunity to have a part-time job to supplement one’s income. Fearing fines from police, many informal taxis hide their signs in the passenger seat until a potential client is nearby. Some informal cabs, called colectivos (Spanish for collectives) offer shared cab rides on pre-established routes across town.

Such informality and secrecy also allows criminals to disguise themselves as taxi drivers in order to hold up unsuspecting passengers. According to media reports, there were close to 1,000 cases of holdups and/or kidnappings onboard these colectivos last year. This is part of the reason the city has ramped up efforts over the past decade to incorporate informal taxis. In the late 2000s Lima’s taxi fleet began to convert to engines that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), partly driven by city-financed programs.

Through these programs drivers could buy cars with low down payments, and pay a fee that would be charged whenever they filled up their tank. Their daily expenses would remain roughly the same, since natural gas is 33 percent cheaper than conventional gasoline, and about two-thirds of the price would go toward paying for the car.

A young taxi driver named Luis tells me about the strengths and flaws of these types of programs as he shuttles me around in his city-financed white-and-blue colored taxi.

“They really get you with the payments — we end up paying so much for the car,” he says, adding that he makes daily payments of 50 soles, about $20 USD. By the time he finishes paying for his car, he says he will have paid close to $33,000 for it, almost three times as much as it’s worth. “And when I finally can sell it, they might give me $6,000 for it, maximum.”

But the program and similar privately run micro-funding groups have given informal drivers access to new cars, and allowed them to improve their service. Luis, for instance, says he has to work extended hours to be able to pay his daily quota, but he still supports the program because it affords him the chance to have something of his own. “What access would I have to a loan?” he asks, adding that before he had to borrow his uncle’s car during his off days in order to make some money.

From what Luis tells me, it seems becoming a formal taxi driver in Lima is now also a two-step process.

“[With this program] I only show up with my ID, and give $1,000 in down payment, and they give me a car.”