Hard times fuel Tehran taxi glut
Mansour Faridfar did well on the black market until the law caught up and left him jobless, forcing him to join the thousands of "shakhsi" unofficial taxi drivers clogging Tehran's streets.
"I used to be very well off and I thought my fate was in my hands, but I gradually learned that was not true," said the 60-year-old father of two, driving a route through the north of the Iranian capital.
Faridfar once made good money on Iran's vast black market, even if smuggling in Western clothes such as ties and women's coats earned him a few months in jail during the unforgiving period just after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
His luck ran out in the 1990s when a $50,000 shipment was seized by customs, bankrupting him. Later, he narrowly avoided another stint in prison for selling poor-quality rice to the education ministry.
"So four years ago, I bought this Pride and started working as a driver," he said, gesturing around his battered car, the cheapest model in Iran.
Now, he makes around 800,000 rials ($23) a day working as a shakhsi (which means "personal" in Farsi). More than half is lost on expenses.
Such fly-by-night careers are common in Iran thanks to decades of economic mismanagement and international isolation. The jobless rate currently stands at 11 percent.
Tehran's mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf this week bemoaned the growing number of shakhsi caused, he said, by the "bad economic situation".
"I've personally witnessed them dare to go to taxi ranks and take work away from (official) taxi drivers," he told a transport conference.
Tehran already has 78,000 official taxis -- more than five times the number in New York -- and another 35,000 agency cabs.
Travelling one kilometre (just over half a mile) up Valyasr Street -- the main north-south artery -- can take more than an hour once rush-hour kicks in at around 4:00 pm.
"I'm not really satisfied working like this -- none of us are. My expertise is the fashion business," said Faridfar.
- Iranian Uber -
All these taxis mean you only need to stand on a Tehran curb for a few seconds before someone slows down and beeps their horn, offering a lift.
The range of options is vast.
There are the yellow taxis of the municipality, the green taxis of the official private network, and neighbourhood agencies.
There are also cabs that ply fixed routes through the city and pick people up along the way, like a bus. Passengers can share with strangers or pay extra for "darbast" ("closed door") to have the car to themselves.
With all this choice, there hardly seems room for the sort of ride-hailing apps that have transformed the industry in other countries.
Uber founder Travis Kalanick was famously inspired to start the company when he couldn't find a taxi one night in tightly-regulated Paris -- a problem he would never have encountered in Tehran.
Nonetheless, a couple of start-up companies have emerged in the city.
Snapp was first on the scene a couple of years ago, designed by university graduates and offering a service very similar to Uber.
The company's CEO, Shahram Shahkar, says it is "helping tens of thousands of customers connect to tens of thousands of drivers" and has ambitious plans to expand the service nationwide.
"Our vision is to provide a reliable and convenient software and service solution for the transportation sector in all cities of Iran," he told AFP.
Snapp is protected against competition from Uber by continuing US sanctions on Iran, which Washington has maintained despite a nuclear deal with world powers that came into force in January.
But Snapp must still contend with Tehran's hellish traffic.
On a recent trip to the famed Friday bazaar, two expats stood in the blazing midday heat, waiting for their Snapp car to inch its way through traffic.
Determined to use up their pre-paid credit, they waved on dozens of traditional taxis that stopped to offer a ride while the Snapp car remained stuck in a bottleneck up the road.
"I think I'm going to cry," said one sweating expat.
© 2016 AFP