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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Uber in Mérida is getting worse. Is it time to call a taxi?

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.

What do you call it when an Uber “ghosts” you? There must be a word for that. 

When Uber arrived in Mérida, it changed everything. They came quickly — like in three minutes — and they charged very little. Drivers were plentiful and seemed happy with their compensation. The first ones offered me water or snacks — something completely unnecessary but kind. I could tell they were from out of town, the way they kept their eyes peeled on their GPS.

The local taxi cabs might have been a little slow to come, but their drivers were professional and knew the streets very well. At this point, the only reason I’m still on Uber is that GPS map and frictionless transaction — meaning I pay by credit card rather than fumbling for money and hoping the driver can make change. That, and my Spanish can continue to suck because my destination is spelled out on the driver’s phone.

Of course, this is a first-world problem. Life isn’t so kind for the drivers these days, so while passengers are often left hanging the struggling driver is under pressure to make the most of a day’s work. Who can blame them?

Yesterday, I hailed an Uber to take me from Faro del Mayab hospital to my home in Santa Ana — a half-an-hour trip in rush-hour traffic. A car was coming in 16 minutes, but with just eight minutes remaining the driver changed her mind. She canceled the ride, and Uber assigned me to another driver 24 minutes away and currently with another passenger.

My phone’s battery was quickly losing power while I stood on the side of the highway waiting for my rescuer. 

It’s commonplace. Once, I even waited 29 minutes for an Uber and the driver canceled when it was only 4 minutes away. Another time, I saw him pull over a block away, hazard lights blinking. I thought the driver was misreading the GPS, but then the “Finding you another ride” message appeared on my phone. “Your driver canceled, but you’ll be connected with another one shortly.”

And sometimes, especially during early afternoons, there are no cars available. The convenience that gave Uber an edge over the taxicab dispatch operator, who’d tell you to call back in 45 minutes because it’s raining, has started to evaporate.

It’s not just happening to me — my friends can confirm that it’s becoming a routine occurrence.

I don’t want to be insensitive to the bigger issue here. Most likely the drivers, squeezed by their rideshare overlords, are juggling accounts from more than one ride-hailing app or negotiating cash deals. So if DiDi offers them a more attractive fare, the driver will leave me waiting on the curb and cancel without explanation. (Mind you, if I did that, I’d be dinged 10 pesos. In the US it’s five bucks.)

And more often drivers are texting me in advance to negotiate a cash deal. I could have called a taxi if I wanted to fumble with money. 

Last year, I planned to write a story about the problem, and contacted Uber Mexico’s communications department, expecting to be ignored. To my delight, I was referred to a public relations company and received a lengthy response. To my disappointment, the response was long but unhelpful, sidestepping my questions about the difficulty in finding willing drivers. 

They did say that demand was up, and ​​in Mérida, “driver-partners have benefited from this and increased their earnings by 40%.”

They also acknowledge that on UberEats, the chilaquiles you ordered could be getting a city tour before reaching your house. 

“To keep our intermediation for delivery service as efficient as always and meet our customers’ needs and benefit couriers with higher profits, they can choose to accept more than one order that shares a similar route, without affecting the requested product or service quality,” the spokesperson said.

Some old-school taxis have dabbled with apps and other incentives, but the default move for customers is “to Uber.” Once a brand becomes a verb, it’s hard to go back. But if Uber drivers are this unhappy, maybe we should be looking at the good old-fashioned taxicabs again and beg their forgiveness for abandoning them.

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