Hailing a taxi in Cairo can be a bit of a gamble. Most of the time, it’s perfectly fine — a short wait for a civil driver who takes you where you want to go with minimal hassle. But nearly everyone who rides taxis in Cairo has had the process go wrong.
Routine irritations range from rigged meters to drivers who don’t know (or pretend not to know) the route to the most basic destinations. More seriously, there is an ever present risk of sexual harassment, reckless driving, robbery or even assault, and without taxi companies or a responsive authority to complain to, passengers have little recourse when things go wrong.
Two smartphone applications are trying to change that. Easy Taxi, which launched in Cairo in January, allows you to book regular white taxis via your smartphone. Uber, which is currently doing a Beta launch in Cairo, works as an on-demand car service.
Both have the potential to change the way Cairenes approach their daily commute. One is more comfortable and precise, the other is more practical and seems more accessible to the local market. But for the moment, both suffer from practical problems that make it unlikely that most commuters will change their routines for daily trips, especially around the city center.
Launched in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2011, Easy Taxi was inspired when company founder Tallis Gomes found himself waiting by the side of the road, unable to call or hail a taxi. This inspired him to develop a smartphone app that would allow customers to hail vetted, registered drivers of regular city taxis. The company was acquired by tech incubator Rocket Internet, and has since spread to more than 27 countries.
According to Easy Taxi Egypt’s CEO and Founder Hussein Abdel Karim, the company has signed up more than 10,000 drivers in Egypt, with more joining every day, and books tens of thousands of rides per month. It also plans to expand to Alexandria early next year.
Once the app is well established, Easy Taxi takes a commission from drivers who book rides through the system, although Easy Taxi does not yet charge drivers in Cairo. Customers simply pay the regular metered fare, either with cash or Easy Taxi vouchers.
The idea makes a lot of sense for Cairo. The drivers are all registered and have their documents and taxis inspected by Easy Taxis’s outreach workers.
“You get a regulated, audited and smooth ride,” says Abel Karim. And if something goes wrong, he says, “We have all needed documents from the driver to make sure you can reach the guy.”
Drivers, too, are protected from risks like carjacking, assault or fare-dodging customers. Customers have to register their mobile phones with the service, which allows the company to track down their names and addresses if a driver wants to press charges. “Whether there is an upset driver or an upset customer, we take this very seriously” says Abdel Karim.
Nour, an Easy Taxi driver I catch a ride with echoes this sentiment. Normally, he explains, he’s reluctant to take customers to remote destinations like Helwan. “With Easy Taxi, I’d go even to China,” he says.
I first decide to give Easy Taxi a try when I have to attend a 9 am conference at a luxury hotel on the Nile Corniche. It’s a busy time to try and hail a taxi on the street and, since the destination is prone to traffic, many drivers refuse to make the trip.
It seems like an ideal morning to try something new.
Unfortunately, I can’t manage to input my location. The map within the application shows a pin dropped in the right place, but I get an error message when I try to call for a ride. The same thing happens when I try to search for a nearby bank branch. After fiddling around with the app for about five minutes, I’m at risk of running late and have to give up. When I walk out to the nearest main street, I hail a cab within seconds.
Leaving the conference doesn’t go any better. The GPS location is a tiny bit off, but the search function within the application recognizes the hotel I’m in. Initially, I’m told the closest driver is a bit more than four kilometers away and can arrive in just under 10 minutes. This isn’t fabulous considering that the center of downtown, Zamalek and parts of Mohandaseen and Dokki are within a four kilometer radius, but I confirm that I want the ride. The driver then cancels. I don’t have all day, so again I simply walk to the street and stop a passing taxi within seconds.
In the spirit of journalistic endeavor, I give the app one more try, this time from a sidewalk cafe in Zamalek at a few minutes after midnight. It feels a bit absurd to pull out my phone to hail a taxi when a steady flow of empty cabs is passing by, but I figure at least I can sit at my table and wait for my ride to pull up.
Once again, the app won’t accept my location. The name of the cafe I’m sitting in doesn’t register with the app, and it won’t let me drop a pin on the map. Instead, it keeps insisting I am at a restaurant on the other side of the street. Geographically, it’s less than 100 meters off, but it’s at the wrong side of a busy intersection, and stopping a taxi there would point me in the wrong direction, and require leaving my table to stand outside of a random restaurant.
I decide to give it a try anyhow. Fortunately the nearest available driver messages me via the app and then calls to confirm my actual location (although this limits the usefulness of the app for non-Arabic speakers).
The ride itself is great. Within four minutes, I’m in the cleanest taxi I can ever remember riding in Cairo. Nour, the driver, is very friendly and sings Easy Taxi’s praises. He says it allows him to feel more secure, and to save energy and fuel by parking in strategic locations and waiting for calls rather than endlessly driving the streets.
I can definitely see myself using Easy Taxi for a long trip to the airport or a far-flung suburb, when the peace of mind of hiring a reliable taxi outweighs the hassle of booking via the app. I can also see the value of the service for trips alone late at night or to isolated places, especially as a woman. Nour confirms that the bulk of Easy Taxi customers he drives are making trips to or from satellite cities, or feel the need for extra safety precautions.
For routine, day-time trips in Central Cairo, though, the cumbersome interface simply seems like too much trouble.
Despite only arriving in Cairo last month, Uber’s app works much better for me, immediately pinpointing the correct location. Once I’ve registered, I find the app intuitive and easy to use.
This is what sets Uber apart from competitors like Easy Taxi, says Anthony al-Khoury, who is heading Uber’s expansion in the Middle East. “It’s no secret that Uber’s technology is one of the best in the world,” he adds.
Uber, however, has other problems.
Being a cashless system is central to Uber’s appeal, Khoury says. “It’s very seamless. You finish your ride, you just get out of the car. It’s your private driver. So we don’t want to break this experience.”
But it feels less than seamless when I discover I can’t register with the debit card for my local bank account. Instead, if I want to give the service a try, I have to sign up with my for-emergencies-only foreign credit card. Of course, this could be avoided if I had an Egyptian credit card, but I’m not unusual in not having one, even among the class of people who use taxis and smartphones.
Easy Taxi’s Abdel Karim, who formerly worked for e-commerce platform Jumia, says this will limit Uber to a niche market. “Uber is respectable competition, but we’re in a developing market where not everyone has a credit card.”
From his experience at Jumia, Abdel Karim says Egypt’s market, even for online orders, is 95 percent cash-on-delivery.
“Sure, I’m going to fight with you on the five percent, but I have no competition on the 95 percent,” he says of Uber.
Khoury emphasizes that Uber is open to other electronic payment options, noting that they use alternative local services in places like India.
If it grows too popular, Uber could also find itself facing opposition from local taxi drivers. In other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, the company has faced protests from registered taxi companies who say Uber is competing unfairly by skirting regulations that govern the industry.
Uber is aware that this could potentially be a problem in Cairo, Khoury says. “What we try to do is really not compete with them directly, but offer an alternative … we want to work with every possible licensed partner.”
The company has also found itself embroiled in scandal about how it uses the data collected about customer movements. Last month, Buzzfeed reported that an Uber executive, speaking informally to a group of American reporters, suggested he could hire researchers to dig up dirt on critical reporters, while another accessed the travel logs of a Buzzfeed journalist without her permission.
Khoury says customers in Egypt have nothing to worry about on that front. “We are really strict about data. Nobody can access private data unless there is a legitimate business reason behind it. No one,” he says.
Uber also faced numerous counts of driver misconduct around the world, most recently a rape case that led to the company being banned in India’s capital. Khoury says that in Cairo, the company has only opened its platform to drivers from existing private car services who have already been licensed to drive tourists. Drivers are tested for city knowledge and must have at least two years experience.
When my Uber driver arrives, he is indeed a model of politeness. He even jumps out of the car to open my door for me when we arrive at my destination, a nicety I have previously only experienced in cases of severe door-handle malfunctions. His Toyota sedan is immaculate and comes complete with functional climate control and working safety belts, both rarities in Cairo.
There is also something pleasant about breezing out of the car when I arrive, knowing that payment for the trip, including a tip, has been automatically processed online. Nor is the price unbearably steep. I’m charged LE20 for a trip that would usually cost around LE13.
Still, not everything is as smooth as the payment. My first attempt at calling a car fails. At 10.35 pm on a weeknight, there are no cars available to pick me up from Dokki. The app tells me to try again, which I do around 15 minutes later. This time, I’m told a car will arrive in six minutes. Soon, using the live-tracking feature in the app, I can see the taxi making a series of false turns in the maze of one-way residential streets. The driver confirms that Uber’s GPS steered him wrong — not surprising given how poorly much of Cairo is mapped — but he still makes it in about nine minutes.
Although I was asked to input my destination — Alfa market, a large, well known supermarket — the driver doesn’t have this information when I arrive. The driver has to be given directions, which he follows politely enough, but it doesn’t fill me with confidence in the extensive local knowledge of Uber’s drivers.
I’ve also resorted to manufacturing an unnecessary errand to a fancy grocery store just to give Uber a try. The service is still in Beta testing, and I can’t imagine using it if I actually needed to be somewhere on a schedule. You can’t book a trip in advance, or be sure that a car will be available when you need one. It is too early to say whether this will improve once Uber is more firmly established in Cairo.
Both Uber and Easy Taxi have grand ambitions of changing the way people in Cairo think about transportation, but in the short term, it’s hard to imagine either company really disrupting the taxi system in Cairo.
They offer new choices, which can be a great advantage to some customers for some trips. But even as a regular taxi commuter with a smartphone and a credit card, it’s simply too much trouble to use either app for most of my daily travels. Although the experience can sometimes be a little gritty, when it comes to speedy service in Central Cairo, there is still nothing that beats stepping off the curb and flagging down a taxi.