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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Petersburg Puts Brakes On Unlicensed Taxis

ST. PETERSBURG -- Finding a cab in St. Petersburg was difficult Monday, and it might well be impossible from today on.

As of Tuesday, the ubiquitous and convenient institution of sticking out your hand and flagging down a car -- usually a chastnik, or private driver moonlighting as a cabby to make some extra cash -- is illegal in Russia's second city.

Monday, the day before the city governor's decree was to take effect, cheap rides were already drying up. Would-be passengers were stranded at the roadside, watching the traffic speed by.

"Chastniki just aren't stopping, and waiting for a real taxi will take as long as waiting for a trolley," said an exasperated Natalya Vorobeyeva, 31, retiring to a trolley stop after having tried for 15 minutes to hail a car on Ligovsky Prospect. "[Chastniki are] the easiest way to get around the city. This is such a stupid law."

When a chastniki stopped at all, it would usually screech to a halt, pick up a fare, and speed away at break-neck speed -- sometimes before the passenger even had a chance to shut the door.

"You're my brother in case we get stopped, and I'm not taking any money from you if they ask," said one chastnik, who identified himself only as Igor, as he furtively scanned the roadside for police and warily sized up a passenger.

"[The fare] will be 10,000 rubles, by the way -- and please buckle up," he added, hitting the gas and speeding away on a ride to the Moskovsky Train Station.

City Governor Vladimir Yakovlev's decree banning gypsy cabs was made public in early February. City officials say the decree is an effort to "normalize" the city's taxi industry and create new jobs by boosting demand for cabs.

It has elicited outrage and scorn from drivers and passengers alike, however, and apparently has left the city's nearly 5 million people to rely on just 1,500 official registered taxis.

Konstantin Kucherov, head of the city's Transportation Committee, said Monday that the decree would take effect as planned Tuesday.

The key to enforcement will be a small army of undercover agents -- armed plainclothes officers of the State Auto Inspectorate, or GAI, and of the transport police.

Inna Zubkova, a GAI spokeswoman, would not say how many officers would be on the streets Tuesday to enforce the decree, but earlier statements by the city's transportation committee put the figure at about 2,000.

She said license plate numbers of chastniki would be entered into a data base. Second offenders face fines as high as $5,300.

Gypsy cabbies not wishing to fall victim must purchase a 300,000-ruble license, to be renewed annually, and a $150 receipt-issuing meter.

Kucherov predicted the number of registered cabs on the road would jump from its current 1,500 to as many as 12,000 within six months.

But even Yury Murevich, director of St. Petersburg's Central Taxi Park dispatch office, said the decree had done nothing to boost the number of officially licensed cabbies.

"The meter is expensive and so is the license. I don't expect we'll see any more drivers than we have at the moment," he said. "I know this decree is supposed to benefit our drivers, but overall it is just depriving people of work, a means for a little cash to make ends meet."