On a sweltering December weekday morning, Brazilian designer Eduarda Martins Delcourt was trying to travel across southern Rio de Janeiro to her family home for Christmas. Her first impulse was to open her Uber app.
Uber indicated that the 15-minute trip would set her back 40 reais (around $7) — more than double what she had remembered paying for a similar trip just a couple years back.
So, Martins Delcourt closed the app and had her mom order her a cab using Taxi.Rio, an app developed by the Rio de Janeiro government to connect riders to the traditional taxi service. Taxi.Rio charged just 18 reais (around $2.80) for the same ride — less than half of what Uber was asking.
Martins Delcourt is part of a growing number of Brazilians ditching Uber for taxis, which are now becoming cheaper and easier to come by. According to the Union of Autonomous Taxi Drivers of the Municipality of Rio, demand for Rio taxi services, which now operate in a number of cities across Brazil, rose by 60% at the tail end of 2021. Taxi.Rio added roughly 38,000 monthly users in 2021, according to official Rio city government figures.
Meanwhile, statistics from the state of Rio de Janeiro found that traditional taxis clocked around 226,800,000 completed trips in 2021, compared to 136,080,000 in the same period the previous year, claimed Rodrigo Lopes Cosendey, the general secretary of Rio Niteroi Municipality Taxi Driver’s Union.
Monthly completed trips in Brazil for Uber and 99, owned by Chinese tech giant DiDi, have not been disclosed to the public, but they are believed to have 28 million active users combined –– approximately 90% of the Brazilian population –– with 99 boasting 750,000 active drivers, compared to Uber’s over 600,000.
In recent years though, new, lesser-known competitors, like Taxi.Rio and Lady Driver, have captured around 8% of Brazilian users.
The shift back to traditional cabs was spurred in large part by pricing and longer wait times. Uber and 99 are grappling with driver shortages and high demand, which has translated to price surcharges, including a 30% increase over two months last fall, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
Andreia Santos, another Rio native, told Rest of World that Uber charged her almost 150 reais (around $27) for a roughly 30-minute trip on New Year’s eve. “That’s the price of my weekly grocery trip,” she said.
Meanwhile, taxi cab prices across Brazil are set by local authorities and have seen minimal increases over the past three years. And populous urban centers like Rio de Janeiro have recently invested heavily in apps like Taxi.Rio, which aim to make hailing a cab just as easy as hailing an Uber. This has meant that Brazilians have gradually begun to find traditional taxis are often cheaper and more convenient alternatives than private ride-hailing apps.
“Given the increased demand for trips, there are many who are returning to taxis or even discovering them for the first time,” Alessandro Ruiz Martinez, a leader of the National Taxi Front (Frennataxi), a union, told Rest of World.
A surging demand for rides and a limited pool of drivers have led to recent surges in Uber prices in England and the U.S., among other countries. But in Brazil, ride-hailing apps are in a particular bind because of spiking inflation, largely driven by high fuel prices.
In Rio de Janeiro, as in the rest of Brazil, where the majority of drivers use gasoline to fill their tanks, the price of gas has soared by up to 46% in 2021. Natural gas had also risen by nearly 40% in 2021.
For drivers, the addition of exorbitant gas prices to the cost of the ride-hailing companies’ 30% cut can be discouraging. “If it’s a short trip, it’s just not worth accepting the fare,” Wilson Lucas, a 22-year-old driving for both Uber and 99 in Rio, told Rest of World. He drives 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and takes home an average of under 1,900 reais (around $337) in a good month.
And that money is worth less and less every day. While yearly inflation as measured by consumer price index is at 6.8% and 7.37% in the U.S. and Mexico respectively, Brazil is grappling with a 10.74% rate. Though surging gas prices affect both Uber and taxi drivers equally, Rio cabbies make a monthly base salary of 4,500 reais (approx $800), says Cosendey of the Taxi Union and can take home most of what they make on the road — Rio City Hall takes only a 5% cut, as opposed to the private apps’ 10%–35% commission.
Metered taxi fares are also determined by the regional municipality in advance, operating on what is known locally as the “Bandeira 2” system, where fares can increase by as much as 20%–40% during busy peak periods, like bank holidays and Saturday nights. Unlike the apps’ dynamic pricing model, however, trip prices increase during fixed times.
Uber, which still maintains 70% of the rider share market in Brazil, is improving its service to draw riders back. In September, the company banned 1,600 drivers from using its service for excessive cancellations. The company is also hoping to attract new talent and told Rest of World that it was seeking to keep drivers on the road by instituting cashback schemes for health care and mobile plans, as well as at the fuel pump — although the refueling incentive adds up to just 600 reais (just over $100) a year.
Still, municipal efforts like Taxi.Rio are putting up a fight. Launched in 2017, Taxi.Rio has something that private ride-hailing apps do not: local regulations that favor the local taxi service. For instance, the Rio government has offered cabs on Taxi.Rio the freedom to use express bus lanes, which can drastically cut trip fares and times.
The mayor has also announced plans to tax private car-hailing apps, such as Uber, at a rate of 1.5% for using public roadways as part of a wider smart city initiative to reduce congestion. Taxi.Rio, legally designated as public transport, was exempted from the regulation.
According to the Rio government’s official figures, Taxi.Rio currently has 33,000 active drivers; 80% of the Rio state’s 90,000 traditional taxi drivers are currently registered on the app. Between October and November last year, when Brazil grappled with two months of double-digit inflation, Taxi.Rio also reported an 8% increase in passengers and a 26% surge in completed trips, Kley Pontes, the main technical coordinator of IplanRio, Rio’s municipal computer company, told Rest of World.
Edson Neves, a taxi driver who began working at Uber when the company first arrived in Brazil, made the move back to traditional taxis three months ago, when he realized that drivers’ costs had increased while their workers’ rights had diminished drastically, in the past year.
For analysts, the question is how and whether Taxi.Rio will be able to maintain momentum beyond the specific moment of driver shortages, inflation, and the unemployment crisis in Brazil.
For Pedro Paulo Albuquerque, CEO at a Brasília-based technology startup named Skill, the apps’ current bottlenecks have offered an additional option for segments of the Brazilian population seeking express rides — particularly during rush hour, rainy days, and airport trips. However, he doesn’t see state-backed ride-hailing alternatives replacing private apps. “For Taxi.Rio to truly prosper, it needs easy access and the ability to develop high-performance technology that goes beyond what a government department is capable of.”
Still, Neves won’t be going back to Uber or 99 anytime soon, even if inflation subsides. “Working as a taxi driver is a profession, [with Taxi.Rio] we have security,” he said.
Yet Lucas, the 22-year-old Uber and 99 driver, says he’ll wait it out. For him and many more struggling Brazilians accustomed to informal labor, the flexibility of working on the private apps — something that Taxi.Rio does not offer — has helped them when few employment alternatives are available. If prospects improve in the city, however, he dreams of one day completing his course in the military. He says, “It’s a more stable profession.”