Uber in Bogotá: When peer-to-peer taxis are really useful

Iphones are popular for theft in Bogota

uberOn my recent trip to Colombia a friend and I spent 3 days in Bogotá, a city that is “high crime” and considered especially dangerous for tourists. I tend to take these sorts of warnings with several grains of salt. After all, lots of people think New York City is super dangerous, and if that’s their standard then I’m probably ok anywhere that scares them. But while in Colombia I started hearing stories from people about actual crime that happened to them or their friends in Bogotá. And then in Bogotá on our first day we met several people (foreigners) who had been robbed. So I decided to take the warnings seriously.

The crime I heard about was all muggings, either people taking phones out of hands or pockets, robberies of people who wandered into the “wrong” neighborhood and were held up at knife point, or taxi robberies. Never any violence, but still I’d rather not be mugged.

Taxi robberies are apparently a known risk in Bogotá: drivers will kidnap passengers and take them around to ATMs forcing them to withdraw money. One story I heard, about a friend of someone I know, was a Bogotá local. She got into a cab alone and was forced to withdraw money from several banks. At the end they took her phone but gave her back the SIM card, along with enough cash to get a ride back home. Polite robbers.

Taxis in Bogotá are all well marked

Taxis in Bogotá are all well marked

Although these taxi robberies probably aren’t that common, everyone says foreigners are big targets, so I didn’t want to risk it by getting in to a random taxi and ruining the last days of a great trip. This left a few options to get around this city that is among the 25 largest in the world. First there are a few phone apps like EasyTaxi that will call you a licensed cab and bill your ride to a credit card on file. I’m still not entirely clear on how it would be safer to get in a taxi that was called through an app rather than hailing one on the street: in theory all taxis in Bogotá are legally registered with the city, so it’s the same cabs either way. I guess with the app you have a computer record of who robbed you? The other option is Uber. They’ve been active in Bogotá for about 2 years now, but the government still considers them illegal and the taxi drivers are so angry about them that Uber drivers are afraid to identify their cars with Uber in any way.

My friend and I ended up using Uber to get around, with the exception of one night when we couldn’t get a car to accept our request. That night we decided to just hail a cab off the streets, feeling like we were perhaps overselling ourselves on the danger. We ended up with a super nice driver, but he told us he almost exclusively gets his passengers through EasyTaxi and proceeded to shame us for hailing a cab on the streets as far too dangerous. When the taxi drivers are discouraging you from hailing cabs, that probably means something.

Our experiences with Uber were all very good, with the exception of their ability to find our hotel. Every time I used the app to call a driver I’d get an estimate of about 5 minutes to arrival. I would then proceed to watch the cars (on the in-app map) drive in circles around the neighborhood, struggling to approach our street. I thought this was because we were staying in an area with a lot of one way streets and confusing approaches, but I’ve since heard similar stories from other Bogotá travelers staying in other parts of the city. I had one Uber driver take a half hour to drive what was originally estimated as 2 minutes, as I watched him try just about every approach to our hotel he could take.

I blame Uber for this: the maps tool in the app is obviously not doing a good job directing drivers to get to their destination. In fact on my last ride the Uber app crashed when the driver tried to pull up my destination (the airport) and I had to map it for him because he didn’t know how to get from my hotel onto the highway. But the directions issue is also a product of the immaturity of Uber in Bogotá. We had only one driver who had been working for Uber for more than 6 months, and the rest had between 2 and 4 months of experience. Not enough time to learn all the nuances of that huge city. I have no doubt taxis would have had an easier time getting to our hotel to pick us up.

As for pricing, we found that UberX was pretty similar to the taxi cost. In our only direct comparison it was a bit cheaper for me to get to the airport via Uber than it cost my friend using a cab for the exact same route.

The Uber drivers were all incredibly nice. Our first ride actually helped us pick a place to go to start off our sightseeing and recommended a restaurant for lunch that we really loved. Others were happy to chat about the city, their lives, and their experiences driving for Uber (one driver was the pastor of a large church, another was an architecture student, while others were in between jobs driving for Uber to earn extra money). Of course all the other Colombians I met were also very nice, so I don’t think the Uber drivers were some special exception in kindness. But we did always feel very safe, and the cars were comfortable and clean.

Bogotá is a good case for peer-to-peer taxis for what I hope are uncommon reasons. People using Uber seem to be a mix of foreigners and locals (our drivers estimated between 25 and 50% foreigner passengers). This is a good service to keep in mind when traveling, even if you’re like me and not generally a taxi user (peer to peer or regular licensed cabs) in your home town.