From the ARCADE Issue 32.1 feature, “After Growth: Rethinking the Narrative of Modernization.” 
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pirate taxi

Photo by Michael Buman

Flexcar—a car-sharing company that has its roots in Portland but was established in Seattle in 2000, the year of the dot-com crash—was the first venture of its type in the US and a big success. In 2007, Flexcar merged with the Massachusetts-based Zipcar, which then became a leader in the global car-sharing market. In December 2012, Car2Go, a car-sharing company based in Austin but owned by the German giant Daimler, introduced 230 Smart Fortwo cars into the Seattle area. This model of sharing represented a shift from that of Zipcar, which was really intended for planned trips. Car2Go, on the other hand, is much more cosmopolitan, much more about the single life, much more about urban coincidences and surprises. After use, Car2Go vehicles are left anywhere within the city’s limits and may be there—or not—for the next user. In this way, the service is something added to an existing array of transportation options—bus, light rail, cabs, Car2Go—rather than a primary approach to getting around. There are other and newer forms of car sharing—some rising from the bottom (e.g., SideCar, an app-based ride-sharing community that began in San Francisco and expanded to Seattle in 2012) —and others descending from the top of the corporate world (e.g., Hertz 24/7; Zipcar, by the way, was swallowed by the rental-industry leader Avis in 2013).

The essential concept of car sharing is simple enough: Instead of owning a vehicle, a user rents one for a block of time. This kind of sharing, however, can only make economic sense in a big, dense city. In that environment, lots of people can easily share a tight concentration of cars, and as a result, reduce the overall number of cars in a city and the amount of time those cars spend sitting around doing nothing, occupying much-needed spaces. (“Most people in transportation focus on the 5 percent of the time that cars are moving. But the average car is parked 95 percent of the time. I think there’s a lot to learn from that 95 percent.” —Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking.) Though it’s best and greenest to place public transportation or pedestrians at the top of all modes of urban motility, car sharing is still far better than individual car ownership. Also, the costs of maintaining a car (the insurance, the gas, the sitting around doing nothing almost all day) are not cheap, even for those in the middle class of high-income societies.

But here is the interesting thing: People in a low-income African city like Harare (the capital of Zimbabwe, a country with a GDP that’s one twenty-third of Seattle’s, which is around $230 billion), would instantly recognize the American car-sharing business as what they call “pirate taxis.” On the main streets of Harare and other major African cities, formal and informal taxis share the road; informal taxis can either operate as businesses with employees and planned circuits or by chance—you are driving a car, you have empty seats, people on the side of the road wave at you for a lift, you turn, slow, stop, doors open, doors shut, the car is packed, you head downtown. Many drivers in Harare do not pass up the opportunity to share their vehicles. Why? Not because it is the green thing to do but because everyone is broke and needs money. If you are lucky enough to own a car, it is simply stupid not to taxi people when you go to work and again when you return home. An already hard life is made a little easier by sharing with others the cost of gas, which, even when there are no shortages, is very expensive. But what is done out of necessity turns out to be the green thing to do. 

The citizens of Harare or Gaborone or Maputo should know that the citizens in rich cities are tearing down their expressways and developing an ethic and economy of sharing. This economy already exists in African cities and so all that’s needed is to complement it with a supporting ethic. At the moment, pirate taxis, as the name indicates, have a very low status. Although many middle-class Africans open their doors to strangers for a quick buck, the practice carries a stigma—a car is meant just for you, you own it, only you should be in it, what a shame it is to pack it with a bunch of strangers, what a failure you are. But anyone in Seattle who has used, say, SideCar or Lyft (another app-based sharing community that also began in San Francisco—a city whose GDP is $300 billion, ten times that of Kenya), finds not a hint of stigma but, instead, drivers filled with pride that they are making a little extra something on the side while helping the city move in a direction that’s greener.

In short: Pirate taxis should not be treated as a lowly practice that will be dropped as soon as the society develops (or modernizes) but as one of the more rational options of twenty-first century urban transportation.

A note:

The whole rideshare situation in Seattle is far from settled at this time. Due to pressure from licensed taxi companies, the Seattle City Council recently voted to put a cap on the number of drivers (150) that a transportation network company (a "TNC"—or more commonly, rideshare) can have at any given time. The city also set up state insurance requirements for the TNCs. But soon after the City Council made its decision, TNCs were able to get enough signatures from the public to suspend the implementation of the new regulations. Everything is up in the air again. And looks like car sharing in the pirate taxi mode is not going to vanish as easily as those in the formal market want it to.