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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow's Taxis: Taking the Public for a Ride

Licensed, metered taxis are something Muscovites look back on with the same nostalgia they harbor for cheap sausages: They may never have been all that plentiful, but now that they have disappeared entirely, they have become the stuff of rosy memories.

Taxis have for decades been supplemented by ordinary drivers picking up passengers for extra cash. But now, these cars have virtually taken the place of taxis. These days, what Muscovites call catching a cab is more like hitchhiking and then paying for it -- often a considerable sum.

The would-be passenger flags down any old vehicle, names a destination, and, if the driver does not wordlessly shake his head and drive off, negotiates a price -- from 1000 or 2000 rubles for a short lift to over 25,000 ($12) for a ride to the outskirts.

Moscow Property Committee chairman Oleg Tolkachev in a recent interview cited the near-total demise of Moscow's taxi system as proof that privatization had harmed the city.

Moscow's 21 taxi parks were privatized in 1991 under a program which allowed drivers to buy their taxis cheaply, said Olga Titova of the transportation department.Taksopark No. 11 in northern Moscow once sent out scores of taxis to cruise Moscow at 20 kopecks a kilometer, said an attendant who asked not to be named. It is now mainly a garage, renting out parking space and leasing its 13 remaining taxis to freelance drivers, he said. The firm's director refused to come outside.

Citing freelancers' high prices and lack of safety controls, city officials such as Titova have called for resurrecting a city-run system.

But another official, who asked not to be named, said city ownership could not bridge the growing gap between what taxis must charge to cover fuel costs and what Muscovites can afford.

Moscow had 4,084 licensed taxis in January 1994, down from 11,000 one year ago, Titova said. The city's often-busy taxi hotline at 927-0000 offers Mercedes, which few can afford, and Volgas, which are cheaper but scarce, she said.

The gap is filled by ordinary drivers, known as chastniki from the word for "private," who pick up passengers in beat-up Zhigulis, sleek new imports, army trucks and even off-duty trolleybuses.

Mikhail Arsegyen, an unemployed contrabassist, said picking up occasional passengers covers gas and car repairs and leaves just a bit "for beer."

Other chastniki say they live on what they make.

Alexei, 38, said he supports two children by driving his red Zhiguli around Moscow all day several times a week, making 25,000 to 70,000 rubles a day, far more than his old 150,000-ruble government chauffeur's salary.

Actual taxis -- usually pastel Volgas with checkered patches -- are more often seen clustered around fancy hotels than cruising the streets, whether their drivers still work for the city or have become essentially chastniki themselves.

Taxi drivers interviewed said the cost of gas, licenses and taxes made cruising unprofitable. Other chastniki scoffed, saying such drivers rarely pay taxes, relying instead on "taxi mafias" around hotels and airports which drive away competition by slashing tires and threatening outsiders.

"Taxi drivers are rude -- the prices they ask!" said Arsegyen, who recently picked up a Central Asian tourist to whom a taxi driver had just quoted a price of 20,000 rubles for a five-minute ride.

One taxi driver waiting for passengers near the Intourist Hotel, who identified himself only as Sergei, admitted he sought out-of-town passengers who do not know how much a ride should cost.

"We won't take you," he told a foreign journalist when asked the price of a short ride up Tverskaya Ulitsa. "You've already been working here; you can cross the street and find some hungry chastnik right away to take you for 3,000."