In early September, a 19-year-old college student named Mara Castilla was heading home after a night out with friends in Cholula, Mexico, near Puebla. It was late, so she did what anyone would've done: She ordered a car using a ride-hailing app (Cabify, in this case). She never made it home. A week later, her body was found in a ditch, and the driver was arrested on suspicion of rape and murder.
Since then, women across Mexico have been worried—even more worried than usual in a country where seven women are murdered every day and getting around safely is a daily gamble. Some turned to new apps like Laúdrive, which promise greater safety by pairing women passengers with women drivers. At a time when Uber finds itself at the center of a class-action lawsuit over its failure to protect riders from sexual assault, "Uber for women" apps seem like a brilliant idea. But after similar initiatives in the United States and elsewhere have come and gone, will Mexico's version fare any better?
Women are at greater risk of violence while using public transportation everywhere, and Mexico is no exception. Taxis are only marginally safer, with many women wary of hailing a cab off the street at night. So-called "pink taxi" programs have been launched in Puebla and other cities over the years, but they appear to be mostly defunct today. Mexico City has tried to address the issue by designating women-only cars on many buses and on the metro, but still, when Uber launched here in 2013, many women welcomed it. With driver profiles and GPS tracking, it seemed to be a safer option. But when a woman accused a Mexico City Uber driver of rape last year, the hope for a safer way to get around dimmed.
"I had a few experiences where I felt uncomfortable with drivers turning around and staring at me, and I started to feel super unsafe," says Alma Rivas Pacheco, a 31-year-old video editor in Mexico City. "I was looking at other options and found Cabify, but then the news came out about [Castilla's death] and that's when I heard about Laúdrive."
Entrepreneur Luis Fernando Montes de Oca started Laúdrive two years ago after wondering why so few women were signed up to drive for apps like Uber. (In the U.S., women make up just 14 percent of drivers. Statistics on Mexico are not readily available.)
"The main reason was because they felt unsafe, but when their passengers were also women, they felt safer," he says. He named Laúdrive after the Spanish word for lute to imply "harmony between drivers and riders."
After Castilla's death, Laúdrive downloads spiked 600 percent. The service comes equipped with a panic button that automatically dials 911 and alerts the service of a problem with the trip. Cabify has also added a panic button, and Uber has experimented with similar features in South Africa and India. Laúdrive is offered exclusively to women riders and children under 12, but after 20 trips, riders can bring along a male passenger.
Montes de Oca hopes his app will bring more Mexican women into the sharing economy and put more money in their pockets. He says the average fare is higher than Uber's, and the driver's commission is lower (20 percent, compared to Uber's 25 percent). Laúdrive's biggest challenge will be recruiting and performing background checks on enough drivers to meet demand.
"They're up against a tough market," says Alex Rosenblat, a researcher at the Data & Society Institute. "It's challenging in comparison to Uber and Lyft, which are already a cultural phenomenon."
Women who have tried to use Laúdrive say wait times can be long, if there are drivers available at all, highlighting the difficulty of launching a specialized service in the face of more popular apps. This is especially true in Mexico, Uber's third-largest market.
"The other apps grow quickly but they have forgotten quality control," Montes de Oca says. Laúdrive has signed up about 1,000 drivers—called "Laudys"—and recently celebrated its 100,000th download. Right now, the service is operating only in Mexico City, but it aims to expand to four more cities in Mexico, triple the number of drivers, and double the number of riders by the end of next quarter.
"We are a niche business, but it's a niche that has this need," Montes de Oca says.
Rosenblat says the demand for women-only services points to a flaw in the current ride-hailing model, which relies on a user-ratings system to foster trust between strangers. "Customers are expected to perform this task of flagging errant behavior," she says. "Neither drivers nor passengers are paid for that kind of work, but the success of safety at scale implies the free labor that people are willing to perform. It's clear that ratings don't solve everything."
This is not a problem local to Mexico. Montes de Oca says he's gotten requests to expand his service to Spain and Colombia, and similar services have been launched in Brazil, Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere. In India, amid a rash of highly publicized rapes on public transport, a number of women-only taxi services appeared, many of which have since failed. In the U.S., legal experts say Boston-based Safr may run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.
Laúdrive will also have to deal with the same obstacles that non-gender-specific ride-hailing services face—namely, pushback from governments that enjoy cozy relationships with politically powerful taxi unions. In Mexico, many governors and mayors don't like ride-hailing apps because "they undermine their political control over an important segment of the population," says Manuel Molano, deputy director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank. After Castilla's death, the state government moved quickly to revoke Cabify's permit. "It was a golden opportunity handed to them on a silver plate," Molano says.
Even if apps like Laúdrive can jump all those hurdles, Rosenblat notes that a dominant player like Uber could easily add a women-only filter that could threaten their viability. (Uber has said it has no plans to offer such a feature, saying its women drivers don't like the idea.)
But some observers in Mexico say women-only ride-hailing apps amount to a Band-Aid on a much larger issue.
"I've always been very critical of these solutions, like the women-only cars on the metro, because they don't resolve the underlying problem," says Gonzalo Sánchez de Tagle, a constitutional lawyer who's studied legal issues around ride-hailing apps (and used to consult for Uber). "It can be a good alternative for women in the short term, but it's a temporary solution."
What's more important is addressing the fact that women don't feel safe getting around the city. After Castilla's death, some senators asked the Puebla government to issue an Alerta por Violencia de Género, or gender violence alert, which triggers a set of preventive security and judicial measures, and frees up money to conduct studies and educate the public about areas with high levels of gender violence. In October, the Mexico City Women's Institute held its first ever international forum on gender and transport, with the goal of positioning transportation policy as a women's rights issue. And, earlier this year, Mexico City became one of four Latin American cities whose gender-and-public-transportation dynamic will be studied as part of the Inter-American Development Bank's Transport Gender Lab.
When it comes to figuring out how ride-hailing services can offer a solution, Sánchez says the government should create incentives for operating in underserved areas—otherwise, the right to move freely in a city is constrained to affluent areas.
"They have to put cars in places that don't have the service," he says. "Free mobility is a human, economic, and social right, and the state needs to do everything in its power to guarantee that right."