TIJUANA — Clinton Carney was pleasantly surprised when he discovered he could use the Uber ride-hailing service in Tijuana.

Like many Americans, he left his car in a San Ysidro parking lot and crossed the border on foot.

Carney, the director of a public relations firm in San Diego, had barely left the port of entry when he got into the car he had requested using the same app he uses in San Diego. “It was great!” he said.

But his love affair with Uber did not last long. When he tried to use the service another time he crossed, he found that his regular Uber driver was parked much farther away. He got in the car and the driver said he had to stay away from the border.

“He just said, ‘The taxis know who I am and I can’t pick you up there anymore,’” Carney said.

Threats from Tijuana’s established taxi industry against Uber drivers began shortly after the service officially arrived in the city in August 2014. But now things are a lot worse. New government regulations are threatening Uber’s entire existence in Tijuana.

Last month, Tijuana authorities effectively banned Uber. The City Council passed a law that said any ride-sharing service that solicited business electronically needed the approval of city authorities. But more than a month later, the government still hasn’t said how Uber and other services could go about getting that approval.

The result is that Uber and other ride-sharing services are living in an uneasy state of lawlessness, frustrating passengers long upset with Tijuana’s much-ridiculed transportation system and taxi advocates bothered that Uber hasn’t had to follow the same licensing and permitting rules of their industry.

Uber cars are still riding around Tijuana and picking up passengers. But, earlier this month, local authorities stopped and towed away an Uber vehicle that was taking a passenger to the airport, saying it was breaking the new rules.

This latest action against Uber came without an explicit warning, but tensions between the government, existing transportation companies and Uber have been building for a while.

Public transportation companies and unions complain that government inaction, or even corruption, has been allowing hundreds of unauthorized taxis and buses to operate in the city. Indeed, the city transportation department conducts operations on occasion to keep unauthorized and unsafe vehicles off the streets. This year it removed a number of unlicensed pirate taxis from circulation.

The existing companies have extended these complaints to Uber, and they didn’t wait for authorities to act.

In May, an Internet video showed two taxi drivers blocking an Uber vehicle’s way in Tijuana.

The Uber passenger used his smartphone to record the taxi drivers, who claimed that the Uber driver had no right to transport his passenger.

The video showed the taxi drivers making threats and the passenger telling the drivers that he had the right to contract with Uber as a private service.

In the end, the taxi drivers let the car and passenger go.

Tijuana’s transportation companies — many of them tied to unions affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — have long been a political power unto their own in this city.

Their representatives strongly defend the concessions they have been granted to offer transportation services in Tijuana. The companies say that the new, alternative transportation services claimed that they were private to avoid paying for licensing fees and operating permits.

With the support of Mayor Jorge Astiazarán, a member of the PRI, Tijuana’s City Council approved the new Uber restrictions in November.

“It’s not fair that public transport in the city has to meet all these requirements and Uber doesn’t,” Astiazarán said earlier this month.

Still, what the government wants Uber to do isn’t clear. Some Tijuana Council members who opposed the Uber decision said the rules could even affect mothers who form car pools to take their children to school if they arrange the rides over the telephone.

Uber representatives say they want to comply with the new rules, but don’t know how.

Luis De Uriarte, director of communications for Uber Mexico, lamented that an Uber car had been towed for not following the new regulations. He urged the city to come up with clear rules for Uber to obtain permission to operate in the city.

Photo by David Maung
Photo by David Maung

“Incredibly, the regulations do not say what the requirements are to obtain said permission,” De Uriarte said.

Alejandro Chouza, Uber’s general manager in Tijuana, said that Uber is not opposed to paying fees to the city and adapting to new regulations.

“In Mexico City, there are regulations under which Uber places 1.5 percent of income into a fund” that is supposed to help taxis improve their fleets, he said.

All of this has left San Diegans and Tijuanenses frustrated.

“What a pain; when somebody offers you better service, they try to get rid of it, when public transport is abysmal for what they are charging,” said Arturo Román, a Tijuana resident who uses Uber on both sides of the border.

“It’s hell getting into a taxi,” said Román. He has had to suffer through overcrowded collective taxis, smelly drivers and bad drivers who speed, he said.

Uber clients in Tijuana have taken to the information superhighway to express their gratitude for not having to put up with the poor service for which Tijuana public transit is known. Uber is often less expensive than metered taxis, called taxis libres, that will take you anywhere. Collective taxis follow fixed routes.

“The taxis libres take advantage of you,” said Natalí Román, who lives in Imperial Beach and is Arturo Román’s sister. She also uses Uber in both Tijuana and San Diego.

Natalí Román has been taking advantage of the app to get to her job at a downtown San Diego restaurant and to move about in Tijuana.

For her, Uber means saving time and money, but most important, safety.

“When I used the taxis in Tijuana in the early morning, two drivers instead offered to take me to a hotel,” she said. “I had to call my mother to come pick me up.”

A third of Uber clients in Tijuana use it to avoid driving after having consumed alcohol, according to an Uber study.

Natalí Román said many of her friends who have been using Uber like the idea of arriving in newer vehicles, living out the fantasy of having one’s own driver and the sense of modernity brought about by using technology.

Carney, the San Diego executive who used to take Uber at the border, reverted to taxi travel because of the difficulties in finding Uber drivers willing to pick him up.

But he recently discovered he could use Uber to go the Valle de Guadalupe wine country near Ensenada. That made him think about using the service again in Mexico.

“I would be willing to take Uber to Guadalupe for sure — if it wasn’t a problem or a hassle,” Carney said. “I don’t want to be part of an altercation between taxis and Uber.”

David Gaddis Smith contributed to this story.

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