Moscow’s Taxis

John Harrison

A cold early winter morning on the garden ring. The wind and rain is whipping against my face, and my daughter is sheltering behind my back. Moscow looked as bleak as I felt on the Monday morning school run. A few cars slow down, the drivers peer through dirty windscreens, take a look at us, and drive on. Suddenly a Zhiguli pulls up, the driver indicates for me to open the door which I do, looks nonchalantly at me, I say ‘Academicheskaya,’€™ he grunts ‘€˜nyet nyet nyet’€™ as if I was asking to drive to the moon, and drives off in a huff. Another car pulls up, and another behind that. This time, one of the drivers nods, ‘€˜skolko?’€™ (how much?) I ask. He says: 350, I say 200, he drives off without even looking at me, in disgust. The next driver from one of 3 or 4 cars that has pulled up responds positively to my request and says ‘€˜davaite,’€™ (OK, let’€™s go) and in we get.

The split second the door is shut, the car’s engine emits a high pitch whine, like a mosquito on heat, even louder than the boom boom boom of the pop music. Nica and I looked warily at each other, this time it is going to be a more interesting journey than usual. At Barrikadnaya he swerves to avoid a large black jeep cutting him off from the left, whilst at the same time accelerating to protest against such ‘Novy Russkie’€™ driving. He swears, oblivious to his passengers. The jeep, now square in front of us, jams on his brakes hard, as a kind of punishment for having the audacity to keep up with him. Our driver brakes hard, forcing us into the back of the front seat as we aren’€™t wearing seat belts (there weren’€™t any), our car somehow stops without hitting the jeep which has wisely started moving again, and then proceeded to hit the light speed button and disappear into the rain. In those days 10 or 15 years ago, large jeeps were nicknamed ‘€˜innoplanitarnye’ (visitors from outer space), which in many ways, they were. Our driver accelerates in pursuit. I grab the driver’€™s arm, and say ‘€œne nado, ne nado, ne nado’€ (‘you don’€™t need to, really’). He says not to worry and points to the icons on the dashboard, smiled, perhaps indicating the Saint would look after us. I imagined the Saint closing his eyes, shaking his head, and saying majestically: ‘€œne nado, ne nado, ne nado’ and the race continued.

My colleague Kim told me about one ride he took a long time ago.. The taxi company that I used, called me 15 mins before the ordered departure time to say they don’t have a taxi. No sorry, just no have! Dressed for an exhibition and in my best shoes I trudged to the street. Hand out, and the normal parade of clapped out Zighuilis, Volgas, shake of head and drive off. This happened 3 times and the 4th car was an S Class Mercedes, he just said: ‘sit’ and took my 300. In another ride, the driver was Armenian. I managed to communicate that I had not been to Armenia, but I did know Armenian Cognac. He became my best friend for the remainder of the drive and in my happy, drunken state, I gave him my business card. Imagine my surprise when the next day his wife brought a bottle to the office for me!”
We all have such recollections. In fact, in the ‘old days,’ the majority of Moscow’€™s taxis were gypsy cabs, and drivers were polite, and a lot of fun. As long as you smoked, liked loud music, penetrating conversation which extracted more information in the space of the journey from Sheremetyevo to the centre than your partner has ever got out of you. They were, and still are, available almost anywhere in Moscow, and their cars are getting better and cleaner because of competition from online car companies like Gett, Yandex.Taxi or Uber cab. Now the drivers might even get out of their cab to help you with your luggage, wow! Just put up your hand, be prepared to bargain, speak Russian and you are away, without the mosquito on heat and cheesy unshaved ambience.

Over the last few years, Moscow’€™s taxis have been radically transformed. Partly because of City Hall’€™s ongoing battle with illegal gypsy cabs or ‘€˜bombilas’€™ as they are called, and partly, as mentioned above, because of the online companies, which are forcing the ‘€˜chastniki’€™ (private car owners) to clean up their acts. What happened? In 2011, newly elected Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin pitted himself against the then army of 40,000 private gypsy taxi drivers and resolved to bring some sort of order into what he saw as Moscow’s taxi nightmare. Private taxi drivers were required to have a permit (for their cars), and their cars to be equipped with a meter, an orange light on the roof, and checkerboard stripes painted on the side. The cars were also required to be tested every six months. The driver were supposed to have at least 5 years’€™ driving experience and must fill out a receipt for each journey. Quite naturally, none of this was actually applied. The legislation kept coming though. In October of last year, for example, the Duma passed a law in its first reading making it compulsory for all new taxis registered after July 1st 2016 to be painted yellow. Despite what seems like an abundance of yellow taxis, in fact only a small proportion of them – 2,500 of a total of 28,000 are painted yellow. If you book a cab by phone or through an APP, the car that picks you up will most likely not be a yellow cab.

Uber was recently only given permission to continue to operate legally in Moscow if the company agreed to use officially registered taxi drivers and share travel data with local authorities. Now, only drivers with those with DoT-licensed cars will be able to drive for that company, at least that is what we are told. The real situation (gleaned from asking numerous drivers) is that they now have to have had a driving licence for at least three years, know where the main highways are in Moscow (sometimes companies are so desperate for drivers that even that condition is wavered), have a foreign car which is not older than 6 years, be a Russian citizen, and preferably Caucasian (also variable when the taxi company really needs people). That is as far as regulations go for most of the drivers go.
One would think that imposing such regulations would be good news for the drivers themselves. Standards should rise and fares increase. In fact the opposite is true. Car leasing rates have gone up, some say, by as much as 30% in the last 2 years alone, and drivers spend as much, if not more on servicing their own cars if they are owners of vehicles. Meanwhile, because of competition, taxi fares have remained more or less static. Every time one company tries to introduce a hidden way of increasing fares, like charging customers for making drivers wait for them, a rival company undermines them. A taxi company quango has yet to appear in Moscow, luckily for customers like me and you. Even if a quango should appear, official cars are up against competition from the omnipresent army of drivers, the ‘€˜bombilas’ if their prices should rise quickly. As a result of all this, when all expenses are paid, a driver will be doing well if he clears 2,000 roubles for a 12-15 hour shift.
The taxi companies experience such a high turnover in staff that they are sometimes need to hire people who do not know Moscow well, sometimes not at all. Passengers have complained that drivers do not know where Moscow’€™s main landmarks are, including, incredibly, Red Square, as I found out during a ride the other day. However, for most expat passengers at least, that is not crucial, as modern technology makes getting lost very difficult. It can be, sometimes, problematic when the online system does not recognize a driver’s accent.

This is a huge business. According to Vedomosti, there are about 120,000 to 150,000 calls for taxis each 24 hours, and 55%-77% of them are now directed towards the online companies. In an attempt to keep staff, Uber pays bonuses for recommendations for other drivers and a bonus for extra rides over the norm that the driver carries out. Gett rewards its best drivers with discount cards for petrol and an ‘Ashan’ entry card. Gett and Uber compensate drivers for parking fines and pay drivers anyway if the passenger doesn’t have any money on his credit card. Yandex works with 30,000 drivers, Gett with about 20,000 and Uber does not reveal how drivers it has on its books. Yandex.Taxi appears by far the largest company. Some drivers work for more than one company at a time, thus making it possible for them to cherry pick the best rides.

A few months ago, in protest against drivers’ low wages, there was a three-day boycott of the Yandex APP by Moscow drivers. Drivers protested protest against the reduction of the minimum fare from 199 to 99 roubles. A movement has started to get legislation passed in the Duma to force online taxi companies to raise the bar as far as standards go, by increasing fines for unlicensed taxis. It is not clear as yet how quickly, if ever, City Hall will introduce such legislation. The next stage, however, might be to issue some kind of special taxi drivers’ licence, and special insurance for ‘chastniki.’ However regulations will be hard to enforce. The only way to prove that somebody is giving a ride to somebody else is to capture the moment that money changes hands on video, and that is not easy to do, given the hardened street savvy nature of most Moscow taxi drivers. It looks likely, however, that Sobyanin will clear all illegal taxis away from airports, railways stations, and other popular locations.

In the meantime, the likes of you and me enjoy a wide range of taxi services. If you try to flag down a taxi these days, a number of ‘€˜bombilas’€™ will still probably pull up, and a yellow cab might possibly turn round the corner as well. There is no guarantee, however, if you choose a yellow cab, that the driver of the cab will have his meter on, so the difference between a ‘€˜bombila’€™ and an ‘€˜official’€™ cab can be ambiguous. The roughly 55,000 drivers (nobody really knows) who ply Moscow streets do not bide well with rules and regulations. They are the losers and the passengers are the winners in this Brave New Moscow.