Seventy-nine billionaires now live in Moscow—more than in any other city—and it’s easy to see how they get around. Mercedes, Bentley, Maserati, and other luxury brands clog the roads. As for the millions of other Muscovites, they can flag down any enterprising driver for a ride. Locals make extra rubles by offering impromptu cab services at rates negotiated on the spot. And then there are the vans known as matrushkas that swerve through traffic, picking up passengers and dropping them at requested stops.
This doesn’t make getting around easy for a non-Russian-speaker, as I discovered on a recent trip. There is the metro system, which has its own challenge—signs are only in the Cyrillic alphabet—but is beautiful and comprehensive and astonishingly frequent. (No need to run for a train; I never waited more than 60 seconds for the next one to pull in.) Once the metro closes or walking fatigue sets in, the only viable option is asking a hotel or restaurant to call an official taxi. And that can be unpredictable and expensive.
So I was curious to hear about a free new smartphone app Get Taxi that will make it more convenient to find a reliable ride. Debuted in Israel, the app recently launched in London and will roll out with a bilingual edition in Moscow and in Paris by the end of 2011 (iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Symbian). Cities in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain are also in the works.
When you click to place an order, Get Taxi links the driver to you by name, photo, phone number, car type and license number, so you know who is on the way. You can track the driver’s progress on a map with updated arrival-time estimates. Customers earn points for booking and can pay by credit card, while drivers pay a minimal fee to be part of the Get Taxi network—and avoid the pricier traditional dispatch services. According to TechCrunch, founder Shahar Smirin will even let a driver try the app for free for two months.
I like the conveniences Get Taxi promises, but it’s too bad there are no similar gestures toward reducing passenger fares. And the app can’t do anything about Moscow’s notorious traffic. While having dinner one night on the terrace of Loft Café, about a 10-minute walk from the Kremlin, I got a bird’s eye view of idling cars in Lubyanka Square (pictured above).
Reporter Keith Gessen devoted a New Yorker feature to Moscow’s congestion, writing: “The cars standing in endless lines on the crowded Moscow streets resemble nothing so much as the people who used to wait in endless lines outside the Moscow stores.” He explains the causes and why Muscovites put up with the traffic in this video clip below—check it out.
Kate Appleton is an online senior editor at Travel + Leisure.
More From Travel+Leisure: