threecabs-1440The paradox is this.

Arrive early for an appointment in Buenos Aires and you’ve probably travelled by taxi. Arrive late and you’ve probably been stuck behind one.

The streets of Buenos Aires are thick with taxis. Lonely Planet reckons there are 38,000 in town, roughly twice the number of black cabs in London. Stand on a streetcorner with your arm outstretched and within a few minutes, you’ll have found a ride.

With passengers on board, Buenos Aires taxis travel at somewhere between the speed of sound and the speed of light. Speed limits are ignored, red lights are treated as optional and other road users – cars, pedestrians, cyclists – are treated as obstacles to be overtaken, undertaken or (if absolutely necessary) hit.

radiotaxi-1280None of this comes as any great surprise; and nor, really, do we mind. We have enjoyed hair-raisingly frantic taxi journeys in more cities than we can remember; the gold standard remains a thrill ride between Turin’s airport and its city centre during which the driver nonchalantly topped 150kmh while weaving through traffic. The speeds at which cabbies ferry passengers to their destinations in Buenos Aires are unremarkable. What’s extraordinary is the way they behave when they don’t have anyone on board.

Global taxi-hailing conventions apply in Buenos Aires: stick out an arm and the driver, if free, will stop beneath it. However, global taxi-driving conventions are nowhere in sight. Drivers of empty taxis here pootle along at near-walking pace, adopting a distracted, eyes-off-the-road driving style halfway between those of a child-harassed parent searching for the final space in a car park and a kerbcrawler cruising a red-light district in search of a date. Main roads such as Avenida Corrientes often deliver a crocodile line of taxis, moving at speeds that might be exceeded if their drivers all got out and pushed.

This phenomenon fascinates us. How and when did it start? Does it really help? Does it happen anywhere else? Do any taxi drivers just drive normally, or would such behaviour get them kicked out of the union? And how do they get away with it?

cabbus-1280It’s all fairly amusing until you have to interact with them in traffic. Crossing the road becomes a game of chicken as you try to figure out whether the yellow dot on the horizon is approaching at 10kmh or ten times faster. Driving must be little fun if (when) you find yourself blocked in by a string of cabbies slowly seeking a fare; or if (when) you get blindsided by a veering taxi driver with his eyes on the sidewalk, as is happening to the bus driver in the photo directly above this paragraph. And cycling is even worse, the unpredictability of the driver’s speed worsened by the fact that they light their indicators about as often as the rest of us light our Christmas decorations.

The whole thing’s a mystery, at any rate. Unable to find an explanation, we’ve instead resolved at least to answer our own question: whether, as cyclists, it’s worse to be rolling along in front of a full taxi or stuck behind an empty one.

from Buenos Aires, Argentina