Hala, an office worker in Damascus, describes her daily commute to work as a lengthy ordeal that’s becoming even longer – and pricier – as transportation snarls hit the capital.
Living in the Rukeneddine area but working across town in Mezzeh, she says: “Every day I face a new problem as to how to get to work. The journey alone takes an hour and a half. Add to that the difficulty of finding transportation as most taxi drivers [stymied by checkpoints and traffic] cut the journey short, and sometimes I only make it halfway there. if I want to take a private taxi to get to work, I have to pay between 400 and 600 Syrian pounds (about $4) each way,” she says. “That means I’ll pay all of my salary on transportation.”
Damascenes describe finding safe transportation as an increasingly expensive ordeal, saying they find themselves at the mercy of taxi drivers who, unchecked by a distracted government, have illegally hiked their prices.
Damascus used to be flooded with cheap public transport like buses, minibuses and share taxis, but the routes on which they operate have been drastically scaled back by the city as resources are diverted elsewhere.
Often the only option is a pricey private cab. Many have stopped using them altogether, opting to walk whenever possible. But those with longer commutes still find themselves forced to pay exorbitant amounts of money to get to work.
Raed, who works on bustling Baghdad Street downtown, says that his daily journey to the office includes taking a shared cab, also known as service, from his countryside home in Jaramana to central Bab Touma or Abbaseen Square. From there, he walks the rest of the way, as the only transport option in the area is an expensive private taxi. The cab, he says, would cost him about 150 Syrian pounds, most of his daily salary.
But the city’s cabbies say they’re playing fair.
“No one hiked the prices,” says one driver, who wished to remain anonymous. “Any journey now takes a long time, and even if it’s in central Damascus, it could take an hour or two. Add to that the high costs of registering the car and the increasing costs of fuel, maintenance and spare parts. All of these now cost twice as much as they used to.”
Another driver says that while the government has set the price of diesel at 60 pounds per liter, demand has caused prices to spike to up to 90 pounds. Because of this, he says, standard taxi and minibus fares set before the conflict are now “unfair.”
Zakaria Yaghi, president of the Union of Road Transport Workers in Damascus, says there are 13,000 registered vehicles on the city’s roads, but only 3,000 of them are for public transport in use. The sharp decline in the availability of transportation vehicles happened, he claims, after the Interior Transportation Company (ITC), which controls buses and microbuses, scaled back on its services, with buses now only serving a handful of routes.
Before the conflict, 185 public transport vehicles worked the heavily trafficked Jdeideh-Artouz route. Now it’s served by just 40. The popular Qatna route, once covered by 300, now has only 50 public share taxis.
The government and drivers blame each other for the city’s transport woes.
Haitham Midani, a member of the executive bureau of the transportation sector for the Damascus governorate, contends that most excuses given by cab drivers are unacceptable. “The fares have been set taking into consideration all expenses the driver has to pay, be it spare parts or maintenance,” he says. “As for fuel, both petrol and diesel are available widely in many gas stations.”
Midani adds that there are plans to provide government-subsidized gas tanks at taxi stations to make things easier for the drivers. He says there are 25,000 cabs in Damascus, and only 100 drivers have filed complaints with the transport branch.
Given the disparity in numbers, “we find the situation to be excellent for taxi drivers.” The responsibility of monitoring them on a day to to day basis, he says, falls not to his bureau but to “route monitoring committees, which we are currently working to establish.”
Damascenes are taking matters into their own hands. As the employment rate rises, many with cars have taken to using them as gypsy cabs, a popular practice in other Arab countries. And in response to civilian complaints, the governorate announced that it will launch the Taxi Service Initiative in May. Covering 12 of the capital’s most popular routes, it will work to monitor and standardize fares.