On the backs of motorcycle taxis in parts of Latin America, users describe clinging to a complete stranger through some of the world’s most traffic-riddled streets. They recount how drivers arrive without the helmet they’re supposed to offer all riders, and dangle from the back of a bike while clutching a driver’s oversized backpack.

Still, many riders seem to love motorcycle taxi apps. “You’ve got to hang onto one guy that you don’t know,” one user, Felicitas Moreno Estrada, told Rest of World, “and then I thought, fuck it, it’s worse in the metro.”

Moto taxis aren’t outright banned in many parts of Latin America, but they go against local regulations at times. They do not provide the conditions for safe transport, Geraldine Morales Campos, legal head at the Mexican state of Michoacán’s transport department, told Rest of World. Yet, she said that local law was forced to treat moto taxis as private vehicles, since the government does not recognize them as public transport. That effectively “absolves platform services from state regulation,” Morales Campos said.

While a favorite of riders navigating oppressive traffic, limited public transport options, and increasing charges for other vehicles on apps, local governments in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil have cracked down on moto taxis in recent years. Government officials, nationally and locally, worry the lack of regulation leaves users and drivers at legal and physical risk when using these services. Still, companies such as Uber have rolled out cheaper motorcycle ride-hailing services across Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil in recent months.

Though moto-taxi apps appeared briefly before the pandemic, the recent return to normality has only worsened issues faced by commuters, making these mostly unregulated services one of urban mobility’s fastest-growing sectors. Speaking to transport experts, government officials, and representatives at the region’s two largest ride-hailing apps, Uber and Picap, Rest of World found that, so long as legal gray areas continue to exist, these apps will continue to expand moto-taxi services.

The combination of the affordability of motorcycles and the poor infrastructure in emerging markets is what pushed mobility companies to experiment with these new types of solutions, Nadim Matuk, investment director at Liil Ventures, a VC fund focused on mobility, told Rest of World. “Mobility companies make the most of regulatory gray areas in order to test new business models.”

“Ultimately, the market will decide.”

Picap claimed it recently pivoted back to moto-taxi services in Mexico due to public demand, despite a 2019 ban in Colombia and Peru over regulatory issues. And, like Picap, “Uber Moto is an unregulated product [in Mexico],” admitted Uber Mexico’s head of communications, Esteban Illades, to Rest of World, even though Uber Moto is currently available in 13 cities across the country. It is also available in locations in Guatemala, Brazil, Paraguay, El Salvador, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and large portions of South and Southeast Asia. Each location regulates moto-taxi services differently, so, while Uber Moto Guatemala is openly displayed on the company’s local website, many of its other Latin American websites do not mention the service.

Demand has grown fast on short notice, despite both companies keeping their moto-taxi branches distinctively off the radar. 

When Rest of World asked what Mexico City’s position regarding these apps was, Roberto Mendoza, the spokesperson of the city’s transportation department, appeared not to know that moto-taxi services were offered in the city. He was clear, however, that motorcycle ride-hailing apps “are not permitted in Mexico City, so these digital platforms cannot offer such a service.” 

As Uber Moto was rolled out across the cities of Culiacán, Querétaro, and Morelia in Mexico, along with Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre in Brazil, officials came out vocally against the service. Many authorities have been unable to keep moto-taxi ride services off the road because their laws are unclear on how to deal with these types of motorcyclists — stuck between the legal definitions of public transportation and private vehicles.

Latin America, along with many other emerging markets, is a prime target for this sort of experimentation where regulation is ambiguous and often laxly enforced. Morales Campos described the process of getting a motorcyclist’s license as being “as easy as getting a soda at the shop.” 

Matuk believes that despite government protestations and the apps’ bullishness, “ultimately, the market will decide.” 

Some women also noted Latin American cities’ violent reality and said that they preferred to ride on a motorbike. “If I’m in a car and it goes somewhere unexpected and [the driver] turns on the locks, what can I do?” said Moreno Estrada, a Picap rider in Mexico City. “On a motorcycle and the guy goes elsewhere, I can leap and jump and that’s that.” She added that on a motorcycle, she could get to her destination quickly, cheaply, and without worrying about being harassed. 

As people emerged from lockdowns, many found urban infrastructure to be as poor or worse than when they’d left it. Meanwhile, since traffic was worse than ever, commuters looked for ways to bypass it. “Vehicular transport is still on the rise,” said Morales Campos. “It has grown by 5% annually on average, but the use of motorcycles has grown by almost 20% in the past years.”

Despite the speed of the rollout, moto-taxi companies seem to be in the testing phase before announcing their product more openly. The results of this test will depend on whether the government is willing and able to adapt regulations. Matuk was not optimistic. “Today it’s motorcycles, tomorrow it could be helicopters or drones,” he said. “From a legal or regulatory point of view, it is impossible for authorities to keep up.”