UBER ALL ELSE

Uber was never going to be carried on the shoulders of existing cab services. Yet in Istanbul, as well as a court case being opened, fists have been thrown.

Uber driver Irfan Er drives his car in Istanbul, Turkey March 15, 2018. Picture taken March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Osman OrsalUber driver Irfan Er drives his car in Istanbul, Turkey March 15, 2018. Picture taken March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal


Symptomatic of competition in today's taxi game is the almost absurd way drivers of parked taxis in central Istanbul often hail pedestrians with "taxi?" as if selling life insurance, on the off-chance that they'll convince someone that they need a ride after all.

This despite the fact that after an ambulance, a taxi is the most urgently sought out vehicle we ever use. No helpful hints are required. Just the sniff of a vacant vehicle gets our attention.

Istanbul is Europe's largest city. Traffic can be shocking and being confined in a taxi as if in a car park has a measurable effect on blood pressure.

Meanwhile, some Istanbul yellow taxi drivers smoke. Others talk. A lot, and moreover, inappropriately as anyone who's been here some time will have experienced. And this, not least for its many women users, has underpinned the rise and rise of Uber.

The service was always going to attract the ire of pre-existing options. But the famous black-cab drivers of London vocally disliked their new competition almost as much as they had despised the illegal mini-cabs of old.

Those had undercut their business with dubious cars and often more dubious drivers, who, often unregistered in the country, were essentially unaccountable. Istanbul is no different.

Liked by punter and driver alike

The general public has spoken and social media has reverberated to impassioned trending slogans such as #idon'tusetaxis and #don'ttouchuber. Fans of Uber note that yellow cabs in the city have failed to keep up with the times on such things as electronic payment and safety precautions for women passengers. To be fair, they are now establishing a digital network of their own called iTaksi, accessible by phone.

Uber has operated in Istanbul for three years and employs around 8,000 drivers who operate 5,000 vehicles. Moreover, the media reports that as many as 4,500 regular taxi drivers have fueled the ranks. The appeal here is the ability to establish one's own business in stark contrast to obtaining a yellow taxi plate, which can go for as high as USD385,000, a (tail)pipe dream to most. Regularly though, drivers rent plates from owners for a reported monthly fee of USD950-1,700.

Testing the law...

Istanbul's yellow taxi drivers have seen red enough to open a court case against Uber charging the US-based enterprise with undercutting their livelihoods. The next hearing is reportedly set for June of this year.

...at both ends

Yet objections have been expressed beyond legal steps in Istanbul, where violence has blighted the Uber drivers' experience due to the runaway popularity of cashless payment, phone ordering, and a ratings system that indicates just who your driver is and the likely route to be taken.

The perpetrators of the violence are apparently certain drivers of the city's 17,400 yellow taxis. Uber drivers also tend to drive larger vehicles, Mercedes Vitos, to take groups to and from airports. This upscale vehicle effectively identifies them on the road. An invitation to abuse, although the representatives of yellow-taxi drivers insist that these are unorganized occurrences which they oppose.

The Chamber of Istanbul Taxi Businesses claims that much of the victimization is staged by Uber drivers to win sympathy in court.

Clearly tensions are high at present; time will tell whether the yellow taxi lobby succeeds in appealing for state sympathy or whether the courts rule that Uber is taking Istanbul for a ride.