Taxis in Paris: Supply, Demand and Refusal

All Hail the Parisian Taxicab!

November 5, 2013By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update taxis Paris
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

Paris is often described as being a “magical” city, for its mystical beauty, its enchanting atmosphere and its miraculous ability to saw bank balances in half. But there’s another reason that it deserves this reputation: Paris actually performs magic. Or rather it does one magic trick at least once a day — making all the cabs disappear!

No, it’s not the work of the French illusionist David Cuivrechamp. And of course the taxis don’t actually vanish into aire mince — they’re still on the streets, but under certain conditions they will all invariably be occupied.

Those conditions depend on the two things that you can’t get from most Parisians: the time of day and sunshine. Essentially, there are never any cabs available in central Paris under the following circumstances:

1) On weekday mornings and evenings during rush hour (so-called because it’s a two-hour period during which it’s impossible to rush anywhere);

2) On weekends at around 1am, when the Métro and buses stop running, just when thousands of party- and club-goers start running out of steam;

3) Any time there is anything cold, wet and unpleasant falling from the sky (not counting pigeon byproducts) (and, I suppose, suicide jumpers in a cold sweat and a cranky mood);

4) Any time anything exceptional is going on anywhere in town, like parades, demonstrations, bicycle races, World War II or, of course, transit strikes.

5) Any time you really, really, really need to get to the airport, emergency room or drive-through piercing parlor as fast as possible.

The reason the Paris cabs are easily filled to capacity is that there just aren’t enough of them. Like the city’s reputation for friendliness, its taxi fleet is surprisingly small.

Paris has a total of about 17,500 taxis, supplemented by a handful of smaller services like airport shuttle vans and a navelful of even smaller, unlicensed, illegal and miraculously expensive “chauffeur services” (those guys you see outside train stations holding a “car for hire” sign — they do a disappearing act, too, whenever they see a policeman).

In comparison, London, with roughly the same population as greater Paris, has 20,000 taxis supplemented by 50,000 (yes, that’s a five followed by enough zeroes to warrant a comma) minicabs — which may soon become a common sight here as well. Although in this case, “soon” means “as soon as the taxi lobby embraces the idea, the Seine flows with champagne and pigeons start wearing diapers.” (More on this later.) (The taxi lobby, not the pigeon Pampers.) (Well, actually both.)

A concept introduced in the UK in the 1960s, minicabs are, as the name so clearly indicates, not miniature and not cabs. Not exactly. They are full-sized, regular-looking cars — although usually smaller than the traditional London black cabs, which are outsized and irregular-looking, like big, clunky, motorized orthopedic shoes.

Minicabs pick up and deliver passengers just like cabs, but cannot be hailed in the street — customers have to call a car service, give their location and wait for a driver to be dispatched. This distinction, specified by law and strictly enforced, has always given regular cabs a competitive advantage. Until recently: with the advent of cell phone technology, touchscreen apps and GPS, it has now become much easier to order a minicab.

In fact, it is now, theoretically, easier to order a minicab than it is to get Delacroix burnout in the Louvre, cork a pigeon (I’ll shut up about this eventually) or, to pick an example totally at random, find a free taxi in central Paris during rush hour.

Based on that theory, there are now a few adventuresome firms trying to get minicabs, or VTCs as they are called in French (for véhicule de tourisme avec chauffeur, literally “vehicle of tourism with a ram’s horn trumpet”), on the road in Paris. They are off to a fitful start. As I learned from a recent report by Agence France Presse relayed by France 24, there are about 1,000 VTCs in circulation, but so far they’re like Google Glass headsets and electronic cigarettes: I know they exist but have yet to see or hear of anybody actually using one.

Not surprisingly, the regular taxi drivers also know that they exist and, even less surprisingly, are already honked (or do I mean hacked?) off about what they see as unfair competition. In one way I don’t blame them: cabbies have to pay an enormous license fee — €230,000 — that apparently doesn’t apply to VTCs. That’s enough to buy an apartment in Paris. A cramped, crappy roachranch in a neighborhood where cabs refuse to go, but still.

And there’s another way (in which I do blame them) that the taxis could receive serious, although not exactly unfair, competition from minicabs. In the above-mentioned AFP article, the founder of one VTC firm emphasizes that his drivers “are polite . . . and will only speak when absolutely necessary or when spoken to.”

Paris cab drivers, I have two words for you: “Uh” and “oh.”

Like Parisian retail personnel (as discussed in a previous C’est Ironique), Parisian taxi drivers have a reputation, also largely but not entirely undeserved, for being rude and unaccommodating.

If I had to drive in Paris traffic all day, I’d be cheerfulness-challenged too, but some members of this service industry have two character traits that are simply incompatible with the notion of “service”: an expectation that every customer should magically know and follow their personal unannounced rules, combined with a marked inability to suffer in silence.

I have been yelled at by cab drivers for failing to have exact change, deciding to get out before my announced destination, indulging in what would absolutely not have been a public display of affection if taxis didn’t have such wide rearview mirrors and, back in 2001, for casually mentioning the upcoming conversion from the franc to the euro. (It was evidently quite a hot-button topic for that particular guy, and all the problems it was evidently generating were evidently my fault. I hope he has forgiven me by now.)

I have also had taxi drivers who suffer from ADD — Accent Disorientation Disorder. The sound of a foreign accent makes them suddenly forget the most direct route to the destination, making the trip longer and (sometimes much) more expensive than necessary. When this happens, they always apologize profusely, refund the extra charge, with interest, and of course refuse a tip. And then offer the customer a glass of champagne dipped directly from the Seine.

So it was no surprise that, when the prospect of a horde of minicabs with personable, obliging drivers appeared on the horizon, if not on the streets, the taxi companies decided to fight back. Not by admonishing their drivers to be honest and considerate, not by putting more cars on the road during peak demand hours, but by going directly to the most obvious root cause of just about every problem in France: insufficient bureaucratic regulation.

Earlier this year the “big taxi” lobby petitioned the city government to adopt a law requiring minicab dispatchers to wait a minimum of two hours between receiving a booking and sending out a car. This would make the prospect of standing on a street corner with a smartphone seem, well, not so smart.

After considerable wrangling, the obligatory wait time was indeed imposed, but reduced to 15 minutes, which should make the VTCs’ service feasible for most transport needs. Other than emergency trips to the piercing parlor.

But for now, minicabs in Paris are like cold fusion: a fantastically promising idea that seems to be forever in the experimental stage. Regular cabs still outnumber VTCs 17 to one. Not very good odds if they decide to have an actual instead of metaphorical tug of war.

So, for the foreseeable future, fellow Parisians, you would be well-advised to heed my advice: never eat at a place called “Chez Maman,” never play cards with a man called “Médecin” and, if you have to get to the airport during a rainstorm at rush hour, be sure to wear big, clunky orthopedic shoes.

Not because you’ll have to walk — you click the heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like Charles de Gaulle.” Works like magic.

Note to readers: “C’est Ironique” now appears every other week in alternation with my new humor column on My French Life.


Reader Susan Stamberg writes: “Hilarious column. All too true to be true. Wisely observed and wittily described. Thanks from a long-time Paris cab-hailer.”

Reader Barney Kirchhoff writes: “The Métro closes at 1:15am on most days of the week, but it is open until 2:15am on Friday and Saturday, a change Mayor Delanoë pushed through several years ago.”

David Jaggard replies: “Ahh, factual information. I’ve heard of that. This shows how long it’s been since I stayed out late on a Saturday night. Nowadays, I run out of steam at a time when most club-goers are still trying to figure out how much they need to bribe the bouncer.”

© 2013 Paris Update


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