Marcio and Eunice: taxi and Uber drivers
Marcio and Eunice: taxi and Uber drivers
Leandro Machado

SÃO PAULO — She has an automatic SUV; he has a normal five-speed sedan. She drives to make a bit of money on the side; he does it for a living, 12 hours a day. She's an Uber driver; he's an old-fashioned cabbie. As such, they stand on opposite sides of what has been a growing and at times even violent debate in São Paulo and many others cities around the world. They're also engaged to be married.

The Uber thing was actually his idea. Márcio, 42, has been a taxi driver for two years. His fiancée, Eunice, 48, works in a bank. She wanted to retire but didn't know what to do afterwards. Earlier in the year, Márcio heard about an app that connects users with private drivers.

"I didn't even know what Uber was," he says.

Eunice, who had just bought a car, was looking to increase her income. The service seemed perfectly suited to her needs.

But that's when the controversy started in São Paulo. Alarmed by the competition, cab drivers protested against Uber. In some cases, Uber drivers were chased and attacked. One of them even was abducted. Some of their cars, black luxury sedans, were damaged in the protests.

Officials joined the battle and passed a bill banning the service. Fernando Haddad, the mayor of São Paulo, decided that Uber, because it operates without authorization from local authorities, is illegal. He complained of a "cannibalization" of the labor market and accused the company of undermining working conditions. "We're not a taxi company," Uber retorted.

Last month, Haddad introduced a new model of up-scale taxis, "Táxi Preto" (Black Cab), to try and limit Uber's reach. But the company said it would continue to do its own business in its own way pending changes to the law. The battle continues, with little prospects of a reconciliation in the near future.

But Márcio and Eunice chose to ignore the quarrel. Following his suggestion, she downloaded the app and started to drive. On a typical day, she leaves work at 5 p.m. and checks her phone for potential fares. Since September, she's been doing five to six fares per evening, from Wednesdays to Saturdays.

"I can't really parametrize," she says, using her banking language. "But I think that my production since I started has increased by 30%."

She uses UberX, a service that's 15% cheaper than traditional cabs, and with which drivers don't need to use an expensive black sedan or wear a tie. Most of her clients are young people. "The older ones still prefer taxis," she says.

Her fiancé agrees. "My passengers are really old," says Márcio. "They don't know how to use smartphone apps. It's easier for them to just stand in the street and hail."

But at the risk of blaspheming, he defends Uber. "I still earn the same amount of money," he says. "Has any cab driver lost any money since Uber arrived? I don't know of any."

Márcio starts every month with a 2,000-real ($530) debt to pay for a rented license. But that doesn't mean he's considering switching allegiances. "A taxi is more advantageous for me," he says. "For starters, I can drive in the bus lane, which is already a lot in a city with as much traffic as São Paulo."

Eunice knows that not all cab drivers are as tolerant and encouraging as her partner of 10 years. One day, she had to drive passengers to a convention center in the northern part of the city, a place where many taxi drivers are working. Nervous at the prospect of being identified as a Uber driver, she called her fiancé, asking for tips not to be seen or fined.

"I told her to simply pull over normally and let the passenger out, and it worked," Márcio recalls. "Cab drivers expect Uber drivers to be men in suits driving a black sedan." Unlike his fiancée, Márcio's not scared at all that she might be attacked by one of his colleagues.

"Nobody sees me," Eunice admits, laughing. "A woman in a dress and high heels, in an SUV? Nobody would believe I'm a Uber driver!"

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