BOGOTA, Colombia - Uber has changed her life, says graphic designer Olga Lucia Rodriguez.
Since the ride-sharing application became available in Bogota, Colombia, two years ago, she and her three female employees no longer fear for their lives when taking a cab home after a late night at work in this crime-ridden and traffic-clogged Andean capital. Instead, they order up an Uber ride on their smartphones and breathe a bit easier.
"The safety of taxis is not guaranteed, and the mass transportation system in Bogota is enormously crowded and chaotic," Rodriguez said. "Uber offers safety, and their drivers are there when you need to get around."
Her company even pays for employees' Uber rides home because of the sense of security it gives them.
Rodriguez's comments explain why ride-sharing services such as Uber and its competitors have been enormous hits in big Latin America cities in the few years they have been available.
In fact, Uber claims that its introduction in Bogota in November 2013 was the most successful first-year roll-out in the company's history.
But competition is stiff here for the San Francisco-based company, which often trails homegrown alternatives that use established taxi fleets rather than private cars, such as the Brazil-based Easy Taxi, which claims to have the leading application in Latin America.
On Tuesday, Easy Taxi announced it was merging with Tappsi, an app based here in Bogota, bringing together the two market leaders in Colombia against third-place Uber. A number of apps are preparing to battle for the growing number of Latin Americans who turn to their smartphones to get around.
A similar boom is underway in Lima, Peru's capital, where Uber is just one of 10 ride-hailing and sharing applications based on Internet and GPS. Easy Taxi is up to 50,000 trips per day in Lima, according to Transitemos civil society group. Uber says its driver base there is growing at a rate of 10 percent a week.
Ride-sharing programs have been enormous hits in the Brazilian megalopolis, Sao Paulo, and in Chilean capital, Santiago, by appealing not just to users but to drivers for the workday flexibility and earning possibilities. In Santiago, Easy Taxi has seen its number of trips per day double over the last year to 10,000, according to general manager Manuel Parraguez.
"What attracted me was the possibility of doing other things" in addition to driving for Uber, said Maria Isabel Sepulveda of Santiago. "I used to work in a radio taxi, but that occupied 12 hours a day."
Driving Uber's success in Bogota is a perception of danger surrounding taxis hailed on the street.
Clients sometimes fall victim to so-called "express kidnappings" in which they are forced at knife- or gunpoint to drain their bank accounts at ATMs.
In two highly publicized cases, an off-duty U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent was slain in June 2013 when he resisted such an attack and a young Bogota schoolteacher was killed in a similar incident last year.
Women feel especially vulnerable here. A recent Reuters news service poll showed 83 percent of women queried in Bogota don't feel safe using mass transit, the highest rate of any Latin American city.
Adding to ride-sharing's appeal, said graphic designer Rodriguez, are Bogota's increasing traffic jams, which make rush-hour commutes an agonizing experience.