Uber Panama’s Destiny In the Hands Of National Transit Authority

Ubers May Become As Extinct As Golden Frogs

Most people in business don’t like competition, it’s natural to want to be the biggest fish in your pond, I guess. But different cultures have different opinions… North Americans, for example, have grown up with the understanding that competition is generally good a thing. It keeps service and product quality high and costs low. Public benefit is a natural outcome from competing merchants, according to the traditional U.S. mindset.

Panama thinks differently about competition. In particular, taxi drivers haven’t taken kindly to the competition with Uber, the ride-hailing service that recently came to Panama… Uber is almost inarguably a superior service to your average taxi on the street—the differences are clear after just one ride.

Uber drivers use clean, new, well-maintained, and good-quality cars. The drivers are low-key, courteous, and respectful… they don’t blast reggaeton… they don’t stop to run errands or to get gas (they make sure the tank is full before picking up a fare). Uber chauffeurs respect road rules, don’t jerk you around at high speeds, and they clearly have regard for your safety and that of everyone else on the road. They also don’t refuse a fare… which is technically illegal for a cab driver to do, too, but taxis seem to refuse people more often than they take them. Uber drivers take pride in the condition of their cars and their work.

And, best of all, Uber prices are often significantly lower than those of taxis. Perhaps even better than the pricing is the fact that it’s set and regulated—instead of being gouged on the fee just because you’re a gringo, or having to endure a painful negotiation process upon entering, all you have to do is get in, and you’re off. You don’t even have to flash cash, just hook a credit card up to the app, and the fee will be charged. ¡Qué fácil!

If I were to think about it long enough, I could probably come up with another half dozen reasons why Uber has taxis beat. Taxi drivers are aware of the stiff competition… and their own shortcomings… and are fearful of losing income.

For some, the credit system wasn’t a benefit, though. Many Panamanians don’t use credit and don’t have cards to enter into the Uber system. They were out of luck. But Uber is now implementing a cash system to accommodate credit-less users. This issue, in fact, is the one that’s really pushed the taxi drivers over the edge…

Until now you had to have a credit card to enjoy Uber services, leaving a vast number of Panamanians with no other options than taxis or buses. Now the taxi drivers see a real threat to their cash business… and it’s motivated them to protest Uber in earnest. Taxi drivers are going so far as to cause citywide havoc, shutting down streets in protest.

They have made every effort to get Uber shut down, pleading their case to the Panamanian government, imploring them to shut Uber down… And the government is listening.

On Aug. 17 a complaint by a group representing the taxi industry was filed against Uber with the Panamanian Transit Authority (ATTT). Uber reps have since countered the move, appearing before the National Assembly’s Transportation Committee. Taxi companies in Panama claim the fares Uber collects through credit card or by cash payment are illegal. Uber Manager Juan Pablo Restrepo insists that the service should be regulated by laws that apply to private transport, not public (that law, passed in 1956, covers services such as chauffeurs).

Rubén Chávez, Deputy Director of the ATTT, has said that the agency will review Uber’s response to the claims being made by taxi-driver groups. At this point, the way Uber will continue in Panama is in the hands of the ATTT.

If the taxi drivers prevail it will be a dark day for the traveling public in Panama… It will be a reversal back to a Third-World condition. The winner will be the 3,000 or so taxi drivers in Panama City, the losers will be the million-and-a-half or so people living in the greater metropolitan area.

On the other hand, Uber is used by many of Panama’s “VIPs”… important businesspeople and government officials who all prefer ride-hailing to taxi-hailing. Often in Panama, it’s these powerful people who prevail… and while sometimes it’s to the detriment of the vast public, it would be a coup for everyone if the powers that be win this round.

I am not an important person in Panama, but, even though I own a car, I use Uber for intra-city travel. I use my car almost exclusively for my trips to the interior of the country—except on Sunday mornings when you can shoot a cannon down the middle of most streets and not hit a soul. Many wealthy and powerful people with cars in Panama use Uber the same way.

It is simply less hassle to just order an Uber. It is less stressful—as anyone who has driven in Panama City knows, especially when driving during the many daily rush hours… or during the frequent rain storms… or on a route with construction (which appear to be increasing year by year)… or going to Casco Viejo where parking is an inevitable nightmare. Lots of people here use Uber when they simply don’t want to get into their cars and deal with the roads themselves.

Now all we can do is wait and see. If you are religious, pray that Uber will prevail. Or send an email to the Deputy Director of the ATTT with your opinion.

Leighton Garner
Panama Insider