I wrote a couple of months ago about new regulations that were announced for Uber and other “technology transportation” companies in Panama. These restrictions include requiring drivers to have a professional license, a ban on foreign drivers, and restrictions on the type of car that could be used. Despite heavy opposition from both Uber and its users, these regulations were allowed to go into place on January 1st, 2018. This has already made getting an Uber much more difficult/expensive, and during rush hour, has made it near impossible.
Since the restrictions were announced, even before they had gone into effect, there was a noticeable change in Uber availability. I imagine it was because some drivers were getting out of the platform ahead of time, not wanting to count down the days until they could no longer drive. This lead to longer waits and higher surcharges, especially during morning rush hour when people were going to work. Waiting 10+ minutes and paying a 2 or 3x surcharge was common. But at least they were available. Now, as the restrictions officially go into place, it has worsened an already bad situation.
This morning, during the morning rush, we weren’t able to find an Uber. Even with surcharges at close to 3x (resulting in an 8.50 fare for a ride that would normally be $3-4), the only available Ubers had wait times posted of 20-30 minutes, and were completing trips on the other side of the city before coming to get us. This means even if we had half an hour to wait (we did not), there was a good chance that the driver would have cancelled before arriving to pick us up, instead hoping for a closer fare.
We also searched for Cabify, which many expats have touted as an alternative to Uber. While we have had some luck with Cabify at times, their availability overall is even worse than Ubers, and there were no Cabify cars even on the map to request. After all, Cabify falls under the same restrictions that Uber faces, so they are facing a lot of the same issues that will only grow as more people look to the service as issues grow with Uber. So for those hoping that Cabify will save them from this, I think you are in for disappointment.
So we ended up being forced into what we had hoped to avoid: going back to hailing street cabs. Now we live in a neighborhood on back road streets, where not many cabs pass by. So we ended up walking about 5 minutes up the street, to the Riba Smith by us, to hail a cab. Today, we lucked out. We got a cab almost immediately, he only charged us $3 (a fair price), he was very friendly, and even had working air conditioning. But street cabs in Panama are a bit like playing roulette. You never know what you are going to get. You may get a nice, honest taxi driver, whose car is in at least relatively good shape, who takes you where you trying to go efficiently and effectively. There are plenty of those drivers on the road. But you may also get a driver who’s rude, who tried to rip you off because you’re a foreigner, who has a car that isn’t road safe, or appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. While rare, there are even occasional instances of passengers (especially foreign women) getting robbed or assaulted by taxi drivers. My wife and I together took around 1000 Uber trips last year. Taking that many trips with taxis does open us to risk. Not to mention the difficulty of needing to walk a couple of hundred meters to hail a taxi during rainy season.
Maybe the situation will improve with Uber, as more drivers get their E-1 professional license (one of the main impediments that prevents drivers from being able to drive under the new regulations). Certainly during less peak times, there may be more availability and less surcharge. But for many drivers, who are often doing Uber as a second job or as a side job for students, they may decide that the new regulations are too burdensome, and give up on the platform all together. I believe we are seeing damage to the service that is here to stay.
The Varela administration has made a grave blunder, taking away the options for both expats and Panamanians to have a transportation option that was safe and comfortable while also being efficient and cost effective. Eventually we will hopefully save up enough money to buy a car, which has its own drawbacks. That seems like our best “least bad” option at the moment. But being able to live car free and doing so affordably was one of Panama’s big draws. This move has definitely sent Panama backwards.