Q&A: LibreTaxi's Roman Pushkin on Why He Made a Free, Open-Source Alternative to Uber and Lyft

With all the controversy engulfing the global ride-hailing giant Uber, there is more attention on alternative platforms that meet people's transportation needs and don't have the company's ethical baggage. One of the newest and most promising alternatives is LibreTaxi, founded by Roman Pushkin, a San Francisco-based developer and architect with a decade of experience in the technology sector.

LibreTaxi is a completely open-source project, meaning that developers can take the source code and adapt it for local uses. Since it was launched in Dec. 2016, the app, which can be used to find rides across the globe, has grown to 20,000 users. The highest use so far is in Taiwan, Iran, and Russia.

Currently, it is a simple app that can be downloaded and used on the messaging platform Telegram. Through its easy-to-use bot, riders and drivers are directly connected and negotiate prices independently of LibreTaxi, and pay fares in cash. We talked with Pushkin about LibreTaxi, its origins, and how it fits into the larger, ride-hailing and ride-sharing ecosystem.

Nithin Coca: Where did the idea for LibreTaxi originate from? Why did you decide to make it an open-source project?

Roman Pushkin: The idea came from where I was born, in Russia, in a village located far from any big city. There, there were no services like Uber. There was just this list, a piece of paper with phone numbers, and when people were looking for a ride, they were just calling by each number from this list. It was not very convenient, so we tried to improve it with computers. Initially we used Skype chat for this purpose. It worked, but it was not very convenient either – when someone needs a ride you have to scan through all of the messages — where you go, your location, etc.

Public chat is not solving this problems efficiency — it works, but not that great. So I started looking for a way to create application for this purpose. The aim was to create something like Uber, but open source, and free for everyone. Hence, LibreTaxi. LibreTaxi was originally created for rural areas – but also works in cities too.

LibreTaxi is open source because people from India, North and South America, China, from Russia, from any part of the world should be able to use it and customize it.

How is LibreTaxi different from Uber and Lyft?

There are three main differences. The first thing — LibreTaxi is free for drivers. Second,  anyone can register, and anyone can become a driver in just one minute. And the third difference, there's no built in payment system, so passengers have to pay drivers with cash.

Actually, the aim of LibreTaxi is not to compete with Uber directly. If someone tries to build an application to compete with Uber, this battle is lost already. They spend a lot of money on app development and promotion in different countries.

LibreTaxi is different, and its target is different audiences. For example, in many Latino Communities across the U.S., there are people who are not eligible to work in the U.S., so they can't drive for Uber. Also, in those communities, many people have outdated vehicles, which are more than 10 years old, so Uber won't accept you as a driver. There's no such problem with LibreTaxi. It will be much easier to use LibreTaxi inside that community, to give rides to people you already know. LibreTaxi has the same concept as Uber, but in reality, it is completely different.

We're targeting different people, people who already know who their passengers are, who their drivers are, and we hope that LibreTaxi can help their own community.

What is your growth strategy going forward? How can you achieve financial stability while also meeting user needs?

Right now, I am working on this only when I have time, in evenings, weekends, but I am planning to work on this full-time. For this, LibreTaxi needs to be more organized.

The very first thing is that we are planning to do create a nonprofit organization for LibreTaxi, because I want people to know that this service is absolutely free, and will stay that way. We are not going to charge drivers and cut their earnings like Uber does. Second thing is that the nonprofit can help us make this application more user friendly, safer, and help us polish some rough edges. Our financial model will be based on donations. We're not looking to make a lot of money, and we're not going to be a middleman between passengers and drivers.

Right now, I am paying for all the servers out of my pocket. I can afford that for now, but for the future, if we reach one million users, as is our goal in the next two or three years, we may need more servers than we have now.

Actually, the name LibreTaxi is inspired by LibreOffice, which is a free and open source replacement for Microsoft Office, and they are our model. They are a nonprofit that takes donations, and they've grown to 75 million users, and they expect it to be 200 million users by 2020.

Another thing we are considering is to add Blockchain technology to LibreTaxi. Not sure how this will be implemented, as Blockchain is something very new, and we are very early in this game, but, for example, we could enable payments via Bitcoin.

Have the recent, seemingly non-stop headlines about Uber brought more attention, or more users, to LibreTaxi?

Partially, the success, so far, of LibreTaxi was possible because of these events that happened to Uber. But only partially, because LibreTaxi is not the same as Uber. I am working on this application alone, by myself, so it's not possible to build a shiny app, with all these features like Uber.

How many users do you have? Can Shareable readers download LibreTaxi and expect to find rides (or riders) easily?

It is very [easy] to install the application — just need to install Telegram, and then you can find LibreTaxi, or you can go to our website and follow the instructions.

As for finding rides, we have little bit more than 20,000 users worldwide at the moment, a good number for a two-month-old project. If you look for a ride in areas like Taiwan, or Iran, or Moscow, I think it is possible to find a ride. But if you are looking in other cities, maybe you'll find a ride, or maybe you won't.

Even if you can't find a ride, I hope your readers will be interested in this application because they can use it for their own communities, their own small cities, and even for their own buildings. For example, I live in a complex with 100 apartments, and I've listed an advertisement on the wall, where people usually walk by. Now, sometimes I give rides to my neighbors, so you can use this application right now and even try it in your building, or family.

What's the next step for LibreTaxi, and how do you plan to grow in the future? Do you have a financial plan to ensure both a better product, and sustainability?

Our plan for this year is to add more languages. We've already translated the application to 17 languages, and the website is translated to 12 languages. By adding more languages, we hope to reach more people in these countries.

The next step is for us to listen to people about what they need, expect, and see in the application. We want to deliver features they would like to see. Right now, LibreTaxi is something very fresh and it has minimal functionality.

Users are the key to our growth. That's why we ask, if they like this application, please spread the news — share it in Facebook, public chat channels, etc. It is very important because we do not have any budget for promoting LibreTaxi.

I'm constantly looking for feedback, connections, so if anyone is interested in talking to me, they can find my email on GitHub. Feel free to reach out and tell me about your community, about transportation problems you have, and I'll try to help you and learn something new from you.

Header photo of traffic in Bangkok, Thailand, by Connor Williams via unsplash

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