Hit with high costs and low pay, taxi drivers lash out against Uber in Istanbul

Istanbul Taxi Drivers Tradesmen’s Association poured fuel on the flames by taking Uber to court for unfair competition.
Sunday 01/04/2018
Taxis are parked near Istanbul courthouse as taxi drivers demonstrate against ride-sharing firm Uber in Istanbul, on March 12.  (AFP)
Simmering tension. Taxis are parked near Istanbul courthouse as taxi drivers demonstrate against ride-sharing firm Uber in Istanbul, on March 12. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Trapped in a system that burdens them with high costs and low pay, taxi drivers in Turkey’s metropolis Istanbul have declared war on the Uber ride-share service.

One Uber driver told Turkish media that taxi drivers, acting as customers, used the Uber app to call him and then beat him when he arrived. A colleague said a taxi driver attempted to slash the tyres of his car with a knife. Another Uber vehicle was reportedly shot at in Kucukcekmece, an Istanbul suburb.

“When I am walking down the street and I see a taxi, I cross to the other side,” a Uber driver told the Haberturk news channel. The confrontation has been dubbed a “war between taxis and Uber.”

Some of the 30,000 taxi drivers in Istanbul say the approximately 5,000 Uber drivers are making it harder for them to earn a living. “Uber is a problem for us,” said driver Hasan, who would only give his first name.

Life is hard enough as it is, Hasan and other drivers say. “I need at least 250 lira (around $62) every day to break even before I even start to make money for myself,” Hasan said. “I have been on the job for five hours already today and I’m only at 150 lira.”

Istanbul is the only city in Turkey with Uber service, although the company said it is considering extending its business to coastal regions in the summer. A ride in an Uber car in Istanbul is more expensive than a taxi — the trip from the city’s main airport into the city centre is about $25 in an Uber and $18 in a cab — but that has not stopped Uber from becoming popular with some Istanbulites and tourists since the company started activities in Turkey in 2014.

One reason, some say, is the fact that Uber cars are bigger, cleaner, more modern and driven by friendlier drivers. Many Uber chauffeurs pick up their customers in upmarket minivans. Istanbul taxi drivers have a reputation of having an aggressive driving style and of offering their services in beat-up cars.

Cab services came under severe criticism following reports that some drivers demanded hugely inflated fares from people trying to leave Istanbul’s Ataturk airport during an armed attack by Islamist militants in 2016. In February, media reported that a taxi driver took so many detours while taking an Arab tourist to the airport that the visitor missed his plane. CNN reported recently that two-thirds of the cab drivers in Istanbul lacked required official permits to carry passengers.

Istanbul Taxi Drivers Tradesmen’s Association (ITEO) poured fuel on the flames by taking Uber to court for unfair competition and issuing statements that were seen as threatening violence against the rival ride service.

Speaking after a court hearing in February, ITEO Chairman Eyup Aksu called on politicians and judges to step in to protect cab drivers. “If parliament fails to act and if the judiciary reaches a different decision, the patience of taxi drivers will run out,” Aksu said. He called Uber part of a “global Jewish lobby of thieves.” No date for a court decision has been set.

Most taxi drivers in Istanbul do not own the much-coveted licence to operate their car. The number of taxi licences has been capped at around 17,400 since the 1960s, even though the city’s population has grown from 2 million people then to about 15 million today.

As a result, cab licences have become objects of financial speculation and are traded for $450,000. Most owners rent out their licence to drivers for steep monthly payments. Many cars are operated by two or more drivers and are on the street 24 hours a day to generate enough money. Needed repairs are often delayed or ignored.

Hasan said this system is giving Uber drivers an unfair advantage. “They don’t have to get an expensive licence,” he said, adding that some of his colleagues have started to think about leaving the taxi business and becoming Uber drivers themselves. Other drivers say violence against Uber chauffeurs is legitimate because their own economic survival is at stake. “That sort of thing happens if the state doesn’t look out for us,” one driver told Haberturk.

Observers say the licence system is unlikely to change. Cengiz Semercioglu, a columnist at the Hurriyet newspaper, recently pointed out that licence owners and companies trading the permits had every reason to block reform. If the number of licences were raised from 17,400 to 30,000, their value would drop by half overnight, Semercioglu wrote. “Which licence owner would want that?”

The taxi industry is facing growing pressure from customers in Istanbul. As the “taxi war” gained prominence in the media, Uber saw a five-fold jump in downloads of the app needed to use the service. The number of downloads is approaching 25,000, reports say.