Mexicans embrace bikes, scooters as fuel shortage drags on

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexicans faced with a fuel shortage are turning to bikes and scooters, generating business for startups that rent those alternative rides, but straining operations for ride-hailing service Uber in some cities.

A woman uses an electric scooter in a neighbourhood in Mexico City, Mexico January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

The shortages came after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador closed some vulnerable pipelines in a crackdown on fuel theft. There have been long lines at pumping stations this week in several states.

Uber said the fuel shortage posed challenges in some cities in the central state of Guanajuato and the Western state of Michoacan. Users are requesting fewer trips in those cities, but with fewer Uber drivers on the road, demand has increased for those who are working, said company spokesman Saul Crespo.

“Although the temporary closure of some gas stations can affect the demand for available vehicles, we are working to make sure our driving partners do not see their profits affected,” Crespo said in a statement, adding Uber will take steps to hold prices steady.

Spanish ride-hailing company Cabify said its operations had also been affected, while Chinese firm Didi Chuxing said it had not been impacted.

For startups peddling bikes and scooters, the crisis touched off a flurry of new business.

Mobility as a Service for Latin America, a trade group representing firms such as Chinese bike-sharing company Mobike and California scooter outfit Bird, reported a spike in demand as people who normally drive scramble for alternatives.

“It’s a big opportunity for those companies to show that new alternatives can be substitutes for traditional cars, for short distances,” said Miguel Abad, who leads public affairs for the group.

Mobike, which entered Mexico with its fleet of bright orange bikes last year, said its trips jumped an additional 10 percent above normal growth over the past few days.

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Jetty, a Mexico City-based van-sharing service, has seen a 10 percent rise in demand and expects the trend to intensify in the coming days, said Chief Executive Cristina Palacios. Starting on Monday, the company will temporarily boost service on its main routes, she added.

“There’s still this risk that we might not have enough gas to meet our demand,” she said. “But up until now we haven’t had any problems.”

For Grin, a Mexico City-based scooter company, demand had more than doubled and was climbing further on Thursday, co-founder Sergio Romo wrote in an e-mail.

“Don’t worry, Grin is electric,” the company advised users on Twitter.

But drivers for ride-hailing services have faced the same headaches finding fuel as any others.

In Mexico City, pumping stations were swamped with drivers making panic purchases, despite assurances from Lopez Obrador.

Cabify said in a statement that its drivers had been hit by the fuel shortage, asking customers to be patient.

Luis Garcia, who drives for Uber in Mexico City and owns cars driven by others on the platform, said he had struggled to fill up.

“There’s been an impact on profits,” said Garcia, 27. “You’re spending money to find a gas station.”

Armando Silva, a 34-year-old who works in Mexico City’s posh Polanco neighborhood, said he normally takes public transportation to the office. But with routes packed, he experimented with a new commute on Thursday.

“Today I tried a scooter, and it went well,” he said. “But I hope they resolve the shortage because it’s more expensive and a little far to make the trip like this.”

Reporting by Julia Love and Sharay Angulo; Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by David Gregorio