Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Taxi in Riyadh

How do you get hold of a taxi in Riyadh?
Riyadh is full of  taxi's and generally you hail a taxi from the street or, alternatively, you garner the number of a reliable taxi driver from other expats, or through trial and error, and ring said taxi as required.

This system is in place because, to date, there has been no taxi HQ in Riyadh with a computerised, or live, taxi phone ordering system to dispatch a taxi to your door.  It seems those times are changing according to this article in Arab News about Saudi Arabia issuing a law banning the hailing of taxis.

Passengers in Saudi Arabia will have to start booking their taxis from October 22. Drivers caught doing random pick-ups will incur a fine.

Among the new guidelines that Saudi Arabia’s ministry of transportation will place into effect for taxis on Oct. 22 is a ‘no-hailing law.’

Taxi drivers will be banned from random passenger pickups at various locations, from airports and hospitals to shopping malls and offices, as well as transport stations, the Saudi-based Arab News reported on Thursday.

That means passengers who require a cab will need to call the taxi office in advance and make a booking...
According to the report each taxi will be fitted with an automated Vehicle Locator system to track drivers whereabouts and send them off to pickup locations.  Riyadh has been getting itself organised recently and this latest move may, or may not, be part of that process.

On reading the paragraph that said the new rule pertains to airports, hospitals, and malls I had visions of new arrivals at the airport being less than thrilled they should have pre-booked a taxi prior to arrival.   And given that shopping is the most popular recreation undertaken by Saudi women, not all of whom have access to a paid driver or family member to transport them, I had images  of a taxi circus outside Mall entrances at the busiest shopping hours as women attempted to find the taxi they ordered.

Although organizing Riyadh's taxi's is probably a good idea, the hierarchy my have to make a few changes to their initial plan as reported above - hailable taxi ranks at the more popular locations may be actually be better than a car circus.

Getting residents to give out their addresses will be a new concept for locals utilizing the new service as they are currently used to giving their locations via landmarks, not street addresses.  Interestingly, many of the Saudi women I know are still not aware that new house numbers now adorn the walls outside their homes.

The new system could also make life a little more problematic for those who do business in and around the city.  Not all blue collar workers have company drivers at their disposal.  As it is not always possible to determine the length of a meeting (this is Saudi after all) having to order and wait for a taxi after a visit to a client, as opposed to walking out the door and hailing one of the many driving by, may not be an efficient use of company time or money.  On the flip side, if the office is a ways from a main drag, being able to call up a taxi could be a good thing.  It would be even better if the waiting time for said taxi is minimal.

If you are someone who catches taxi's a lot in Riyadh, it doesn't take long to figure out that a large percentage of the taxi driving fraternity are terrible drivers for a number of reasons, not simply their driving skills (or lack of).  They lack knowledge of the roads, their language is limited, for some their personal hygiene needs serious attention and their cars are often dirty or smelly (or both) or covered in scratches or dents (or both) from numerous accidents.  These are the cars that most women, and even many expat men, avoid when hailing a taxi.  These drivers are the reason most taxi catching expats have the phone numbers of a select few taxi drivers who they know and trust.  If taxi's in Riyadh become regulated, here's hoping this includes in upgrade in car and driver quality.

But those scenario's are purely the result of having lived here long enough to know Saudi grand plans can appear as if they were not thought through properly and have more to do with increasing somebody's income (in this case someone who's just bought himself a boat load of AVL equipment) than servicing the populous.

The main concern that crossed my mind though had to do with women's ability to control their transport options.

The current system of hailing taxi's is actually a good one for women because any taxi's hailed from the street can be dispensed with immediately if:
- the car looks dodgy; or
- the driver looks dodgy; or
- the driver is Saudi.

It is a well known fact in Riyadh that women prefer not to catch a taxi driven by a Saudi.  Granted Saudi taxi drivers at this point in time are, despite government efforts to increase their numbers, much fewer than other ethnicity's.  However, they still exist.

The problem with a Saudi taxi driver, particularly the younger male, is they are almost always attempting to pick up, or eye boggle, women.  When a female is in the back seat, a Saudi taxi driver is rarely focusing on his driving and is more intent on making some connection with his passengers which generally involves spending more time looking behind him than out the front windscreen.

Not engaging with the driver when he is sitting sideways in his seat attempting conversation with those in the back can result in him being affronted and then being rude, obnoxious and downright dangerous.   Not to mention he attempts to get more cash out of you at rides end.

From a female taxi catching perspective the new law, if it goes ahead, may only serve to make a woman's transport options more risky if she cannot pick and choose her driver and, speaking for myself, certainly doesn't make me feel more comfortable about using the proposed service.  If one were to take a pessimistic view of the intended law, making women uncomfortable may be the point - conservative clerics would love for women to stay at home.  Perhaps the upcoming regulation could include training Saudi's driver's to understand this is a transportation service, not a pick facility.

An automated and regulated booking system of some description would bring the taxi service into the 21st century true, but of more importance is the ability of passengers to have some degree of control in selecting a taxi because in this country being discerning about your transport options is important, especially for women who need a taxi in Riyadh.

Ka Kite,

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