Uzbekistan: From Shared Taxis to Ridesharing

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Uzbekistan: From Shared Taxis to Ridesharing

Uzbeks and foreigners alike can benefit from the modernization of transport options across Uzbekistan, encompassed by the growth of ride-hailing apps. But some areas are being left behind.

Uzbekistan: From Shared Taxis to Ridesharing
Credit: Photo 268996769 © Viktor Karasev | Dreamstime.com

In my first-year Russian textbook, a whole chapter was dedicated to hailing taxis on the side of the road. Hitchhiking became an almost formalized system of transportation in the Soviet Union due to the lack of affordable and well-connected transit options to travel long distances in more remote areas. My Russian professor skipped this section entirely, noting that the textbook was a bit outdated and that hardly anyone in Russia used this form of transportation anymore following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of far safer and more reliable transportation options.

What my Russian professor failed to consider, however, is that shared taxis are a ubiquitous form of transportation in many former Soviet republics where infrastructure is weak and cars are expensive. In Uzbekistan, for example, shared taxis are the main form of intercity transportation, even though the country has an efficient and well-connected high-speed rail system. Although shared taxis do not have a fixed price, it is often cheaper for locals to negotiate the price of a seat in a taxi than it is to take the train, which can be up to four times the average price of a shared taxi per seat. 

While shared taxis are still commonplace for both inter- and inner-city travel, the arrival of ridesharing apps in Uzbekistan is changing the transportation scene. YandexGo, the ridesharing subsidiary of Russia’s largest technology company, began operating in Uzbekistan in April 2018. Starting in Tashkent and Samarkand, the app has expanded to 10 cities countrywide as of 2024, including regional capitals like Nukus and Andijan.

Although prices on YandexGo are generally higher than what one might pay if they just stand on the side of the road and hail a taxi, the app provides several tangible benefits for Uzbekistan’s economic development. Centralized marketplaces for taxi drivers allow drivers to pick up rides when convenient for them, rather than aimlessly driving around and looking for customers, which ultimately streamlines business for drivers and provides a uniform model of transit for passengers. 

The economic disparity between more developed regional capitals and smaller towns is incredibly stark. The wage gap between the richest region in Uzbekistan (Tashkent) and the poorest (Surkhandarya) more than doubled between 2020 and 2024. Poverty is also concentrated in rural areas that continue to be left behind by technological and infrastructure developments, like YandexGo, further exacerbating the growing economic divide between rural and urban spaces. 

According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s desire to halve the poverty rate by 2026 and reach upper-middle-income status by 2030 will require the government to empower the private sector and move toward a more equitable economic model. While these reforms are necessary across all sectors, the taxi industry represents one area where this goal has been achieved, largely due to the emergence of online aggregators like YandexGo. 

One significant benefit of the rising popularity of online taxi app services is the growing number of female drivers. Features of YandexGo that protect passengers from harassment and crime also protect drivers, which is especially critical for women in both positions, who face high rates of sexual harassment and assault in Uzbekistan. Greater safety measures for women in the workplace are necessary to increase the participation of women in the labor force, which is a central driver of economic growth in developing countries. In addition, the self-employed, fare-based model of taxi driving decreases the likelihood of wage theft and gender-based advancement discrimination, which are two of the greatest problems facing women who enter the workforce. 

In terms of development, transportation infrastructure is especially necessary for foreign workers and investors. American investment in Uzbekistan surged in 2018, and not just in Tashkent. Some smaller cities, like Gulistan and Jizzakh, both of which are district-level capitals, are home to several foreign businesses. Despite the influx of foreigners working at such establishments, the cities are outside the operating area of YandexGo, and it is still being determined when they will be added to the service zone. This poses a problem for foreign workers, who are already often charged above the market rate for rent and subjected to high registration fees for residency. 

For foreigners, hailing taxis is a daily source of anxiety. To hail a taxi, one needs substantial language skills. Foreigners can also be victims of scams and overcharging for taxi rides and often lack the language skills to adequately negotiate. Unlike typical ridesharing apps, a user cannot complain if the driver is rude, unsafe, or harasses passengers. The features that make ridesharing apps so convenient — such as entering an exact pickup or drop-off location — are absent when hailing a taxi the old-fashioned way, and are replaced by in-person interactions. Although these small interactions may not seem significant, the possibility of sexual harassment for women and foreign workers greatly increases when they are unable to report drivers. Taxis in Uzbekistan are also almost always shared unless one specifies that they want to buy out the entire taxi and pay four times the standard price, which also greatly increases the possibility of harassment and provides exit opportunities in the event of a dangerous situation. 

The shared nature of taxis in Uzbekistan leaves a large degree of unpredictability in transport. On inner-city trips, it could take significantly longer some days to get to your destination depending on who else is in the car and where they need to be dropped off. On intercity trips, riders are at the whim of their drivers, who may make random stops or pick up extra passengers. 

In cities with YandexGo, some people prefer to hail a taxi anyway, due to long wait times or lack of available drivers in places where YandexGo is not yet the norm. Some prefer to negotiate a price, saying they can get a lower fare than what is calculated on the app, while some drivers are reluctant to pay a percentage of their earnings to the company.

While prices on YandexGo might be higher than taking a shared taxi, the ride-hailing app possesses many of the features necessary to meet the demands of passengers in a rapidly growing country. To meet the demand for greater reliability, convenience, and comfort in transportation, many cities have their own taxi services, which charge fares according to a standardized meter and operate with an official taxi placard on their roof. To utilize these services, customers have to phone a call center, where they are connected to an operator who asks where they are currently located, where they want to go, and other logistical questions like number of passengers or luggage needs. The operator then connects the caller directly to a driver, who asks many of the same questions but with more detail, and usually will give an estimated wait time. 

These taxi call centers, which are popular in smaller cities, essentially carry out the same function as a ride-hailing app. Passengers can order a taxi at any time of day, whereas it is nearly impossible to hail a taxi early in the morning or past sundown. They can also request specific types of cars and do not have to share with any other passengers, nor do they have to wait for drivers to fill up a car before leaving. Passengers pay a set price, with a fixed starting price that increases based on time spent in transit. 

A call center might be a temporary solution to many of the problems that hailing cabs from the road poses — such as the possibility of unregistered drivers, aggressive drivers or passengers, or unfair prices. In addition, customers can also call the taxi operators to report drivers for unsafe behavior or harassment, providing identifying information and plate numbers to ensure the driver is not hired again. 

Call centers, however, still do not match up to ride-hailing apps when it comes to convenience and safety, especially for those lacking language skills. Foreign workers are one of the demographics most affected by this. Without language skills and knowledge of the local landscape, it is nearly impossible for such workers to call a taxi and explain their needs to multiple different operators and drivers. In the event of harassment, it is unlikely they can complain to the company or take any action.

As Uzbekistan pushes to expand into global markets, foreign companies are opening across the country, even in less developed regions. With inner-city travel still largely dependent on an informal taxi-hailing system, foreign workers are often left immobile or victim to price gouging. Taxi drivers must adapt to a new demographic of residents who are not comfortable hailing rides from the side of the road, haggling in a language they may not speak, and trusting drivers without navigation apps. Foreign investment is a critical step in greater economic development, especially in rural regions with lots of foreign interest but inadequate infrastructure.

To increase overall economic development in Uzbekistan, and to build greater equality in rural Uzbekistan, remote regions must be added to YandexGo’s service zone. It is unclear when regions like Jizzakh, Sirdaryo, Surkhandarya, or Khorazm might gain access to a centralized taxi-hailing service. Until then, both potential riders and taxi drivers looking for a fare will ultimately be at a disadvantage and subjected to antiquated, inconvenient transport options. 

If more remote regions cannot adapt to the needs of changing demographics and labor force needs, these regions will continue to be less competitive in the national economy,  thus perpetuating the cycle of inequality between regions of Uzbekistan.