My friend C came back from a trip to Morocco a few weeks ago, sat me down, and bluntly asked: “Emilie, why did you not tell me it was normal to share cabs in Morocco?” I studied abroad in Morocco and am therefore C’s personal de facto expert on the country. Prior to her travels she asked me for advice and insight on where to go and Moroccan culture, which I gladly obliged and then wished her well. Apparently I had declined to mention the common Moroccan practice of sharing cabs with strangers, and she had been very surprised to find herself sitting in a small blue taxi with three Moroccan women on their way to the medina. Her comment prompted me to recall my own baptism to the practice, and for the life of me I could not bring it to mind. The only thing I thought of was how strange it felt to not share cabs upon my return to the United States.
Briefly, a summary of the practice. Cabs in Morocco can fit up to four passengers (more if you squeeze very tightly and bribe the driver a bit). Probability-wise, rarely does anyone ever travel with three other people, so there is almost always at least one open spot in each cab. When hailing a cab, it’s not enough to simply put up a hand and have on pull up for you. You must put up the number of fingers that corresponds to the number of people in your party, and a cab with that number of empty seats will come over and ask your direction. If it’s the same direction as the current passengers, you’re invited to squeeze in and off you go. The cabs are outfitted with fare counters that can handle up to three fares at a time, so you’re guaranteed to be charged a fair fare.
The system works well, and quite frankly, it’s much more logical than the private cab system found in most developed countries. Why drive around with empty seats when there are people trying to get places everywhere? It means fewer cabs on the road and fewer citizens dangerously standing at the side of roads awkwardly waving their hands (and trying to not look like Nazis “heiling” Hitler - does anyone else worry about this?).
So why are we so surprised (and uncomfortable) when in a cab with strangers? In American (and European) culture, cabs are not necessity, they are a luxury. Urban centers are serviced with public transit systems that are much more reliable than those in Morocco, so cabs are for people going to special destinations, people in a hurry, and people with cash to spare and a desire to cut out the inconveniences associated with buses and trains. In Morocco, cabs are cheap, everywhere, and used by everyone. There wasn’t the same ability to rely on buses and trains to get you to your destination. Cabs are not a luxury, they are just another method of public transportation.
How does this fit into a larger cultural idea? The cab phenomenon is a result of different perceptions of luxury, and also a result of a different sense of privacy and personal space. Because a cab is not a luxury, it is not defined as a private space. In Morocco, where multiple generations live together and where home layouts are built around a common area, private space is not a given, it is a luxury.
The fundamental difference between cultures that the cab phenomenon illuminates is the differing conceptions of luxury and private space. In Morocco, private space is rare and therefore a luxury. Spaces like cabs are for the populace, not considered a luxury, and therefore not considered a private space. In the United States (and Europe), private space is engrained in the culture, considered a basic human right, and is very much prized and expected. Spaces like cabs are for the few, considered a luxury, and therefore considered a private space.
As sharing services is quickly emerging as a trend that is defining my generation, I wonder if sharing cabs will become a thing as well. In the meantime, I’ll continue to take the subway.