Istanbul’s rough and tough taxi drivers, notorious for their bad behaviour, have taken on the ride-hailing app, which is accused of skirting local regulations to connect passengers with the closest rides available.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — For months, Samil Karadag grudgingly watched big black Mercedes and Volkswagen vans helmed by Uber drivers whisking off tourists from right in front of his smaller yellow cab.
Each time, he told himself that it was okay and there were plenty of passengers to look for elsewhere. He had been a taxi driver in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, for 25 years. He had seen bad times come and go.
The bustling metropolis has struggled, even with its sophisticated public transport system, to accommodate the needs of its 15 million residents and 9 million tourists who visit every year to see the city’s Ottoman-era palaces and party at trendy clubs.
But in recent months, Karadag, the manager of a family-managed taxi stand in Istanbul’s hip Ortakoy neighbourhood, has seen the ride-hailing platform disrupt the taxi market.
“We had no issue with Uber taking tourists for sightseeing,” he said. “But Uber has become a taxi service. They are ferrying locals from all over the city, including its narrowest streets [in middle-class neighbourhoods]. This cannot go on like this.”
Turkish cab drivers are particularly angry about Uber drivers’ access to not only the city’s touristic hubs but also to its middle-class neighbourhoods, which have long been a cab territory.
Istanbul’s taxi drivers have already made it known how serious they are about letting technology-driven competition infringe on their turf.
In early March, some taxi drivers called an Uber van to a desolate part of the city and then assaulted its driver. There have also been reports of Uber cars being shot at.
Istanbul has become the latest city where Uber faces resistance from local taxi drivers who say the global transport giant has illegally eaten into their business.
Hundreds of angry taxi drivers wearing yellow hats took out a protest rally, honking horns and blocking roads in recent weeks.
A belated addition: it is classic Turkonomics to have over half of a fare go to the license owner (through the rent), a shed load in tax to the government and only 10% to the driver. The drivers bear a lot of the sin but the system is screwing them royally too.— Can Okar (@canokar) March 12, 2018
With its ability to quickly connect a passenger with the closest available ride, Uber has taken over the ride-hailing business by storm since its launch in 2010. It now operates in more than 600 cities.
The local association of taxi owners, the Chamber of Cab Drivers, has filed a motion in an Istanbul court seeking a prohibition on Uber.
“The price of our license plates and our income have gone down drastically,” Eyup Aksu, 42-year-old head of the chamber, told TRT World. “We will not stand for this. We will defend our livelihood, our work till the very end.”
Istanbul has 17,395 taxis. That number hasn’t changed since 1991, when authorities auctioned taxi number plates for the last time. Like other big cities, a taxi licence plate in Istanbul is a priced asset, which in these days can fetch up to $434,000.
While the number of taxis has remained stagnant over the years, the city’s population has increased substantially, creating an opportunity for Uber, Careem and others to carve out a market for themselves.
Aksu, however, insists that it’s not about supply and demand of taxis, which has come to determine the success of ride-hailing applications. “The municipality had issued way too many taxi permissions 30-40 years ago. So there was already a glut of taxis.”
Like tourism firms, Uber operates in Turkey under legal permission that is known as a D-2 authorisation document. That allows the ride-hailing company to ferry passengers to tourist destinations such as the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace.
But, taxi drivers complain, Uber uses the D-2 authorisation to operate as a taxi service. Aksu says that makes Uber illegal.
Uber, which began operations in Turkey, in June 2014, currently has more than 5,000 active vehicles in Istanbul. In addition to Istanbul, it also offers services in the resort towns of Bodrum and Cesme during the summer season.
The company refuses to discuss what kind of permit it has in Turkey.
It won’t be the first time that Uber is accused of circumventing local law and transport regulation to penetrate a market. In the European Union, it recently lost a legal battle with taxi drivers after the EU’s top court declared it a taxi service, subjecting it to stricter local laws.
Uber had insisted that its services should fall under lighter EU regulations for online services since it was simply an app connecting drivers with customers.
But Uber continues to see protests in cities around the world.
In March, Hong Kong taxi drivers were out in front of the city’s police headquarters, calling authorities to take necessary measures against Uber drivers.
In Barcelona, Uber needs to relaunch its services with licensed drivers after the Spanish city banned it for using unlicensed drivers. The company’s cheapest service, UberPop, has already been banned in Germany, France and Italy – the three founding and leading members of the EU.
The US-based company also continues its legal struggle against Transport for London to get back its operating licence in the city. Uber has been banned in London since last October.
“We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an assh*le named taxi,” said Travis Kalanick, one of the Uber founders and its former CEO, back in 2014 during a tech conference.
But Taxi drivers are determined to keep fighting Uber.
In Istanbul, the cabbies are pushing the government to ban Uber. Aksu, the association’s chairman, is sure that Ankara will heed their call.
The Turkish interior ministry is currently preparing a draft law that will ban Uber cars for 30 days if they are transporting customers as if they were a taxi service, he says.
It will also punish Uber drivers with huge fines if they violate the regulations. Uber drivers will be fined 2,628 Turkish liras (about $695) and the customer will be fined about 300 Turkish liras (about $80), according to the draft law.
“We believe 100 percent that we will win our lawsuit. We believe in the Turkish judicial system. There’s no room for pirate cab operations in Turkey,” Aksu said.
But Ahmet Kabar – a 30-year-old Uber driver who is originally from Diyarbakir, a southeastern province – thinks otherwise. “I think Uber will be legalised in Turkey. I believe it, so I continue to work as an Uber driver,” Kabar said.
He also thinks all of Uber’s activities in Turkey are legal because all transportation operations are based on a car rental agreement. Even if Uber is not officially a taxi service, customers can rent a car whenever they want to, according to Turkish law, and Uber serves Turkish customers as a rent-a-car service, Kabar says.
Turan Bayram, 52, who has been running a taxi for the past 25 years, says Uber has made doing business after 7 pm nearly impossible. “You can see Uber vans parked along the Bosphorus coastline waiting for club-goers and they are taking all the customers.”
Uber’s popularity stems from offering a convenient ride at the click of a button. Its vehicles are bigger, cleaner, and the drivers are well-behaved – a marked changed from the notorious rude behaviour of Istanbul’s taxi drivers.
Uber’s passengers and drivers also rate each other after every ride, providing a system of mutual feedback.
Istanbulites have a lot to complain about regarding cabs. Some of them have even launched social media campaigns to support Uber. The biggest complaint is cab drivers’ behaviour, which has been described from reckless to rude.
In one widely mentioned example, one cab took Saudi Arabian tourists from Istanbul’s Karakoy and gave them an involuntary Istanbul tour, unnecessarily passing three bridges, which connect the city’s Asian side to its European side, to drive them to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport. The tourists missed their flight. The taxi driver has been tried over fraud charges by a Turkish court which could give him a sentence up to 10 years.
Beyond rudeness and recklessness, cabs do not offer any kind of comfort Uber currently provides to their customers in Istanbul.
Uber drivers charge their customers the same amount of money as taxi drivers do.
“Uber drivers are polite and good on what they do,” said Atakan Gul, a former Turkish American Uber driver, who had worked for the company more than a year in Houston and Seattle, driving luxury black limousines when he was in the US. “They are good because they have a rating system set up by the company to measure drivers’ performance.”
“They use the most advanced technology and Turkish cabs cannot beat them in terms of technology at all,” Gul told TRTWorld.
On the other hand, Taxi drivers say they are fighting to preserve their jobs and way of life.
Taxi drivers who rent cabs face a particular problem.
“We pay around 7,500-8000 Turkish liras ($1,984-$2,115) rent a month,” said Mustafa Bayram, a 55-year-old taxi driver, who has driven on Istanbul roads for more than 20 years. “Once we pay the monthly rent, we’re not left with much,” Bayram told TRTWorld. He is now working for Karadag’s Family Taxi stand.
Both rents and taxi licence plates are very high in Istanbul conditions too.
“I bought my cab licence in 1994 for 1.2 million Turkish liras ($308,000). Now it goes for 1.5 million Turkish liras (close to $397,000). When I bought the licence plate then I could buy 3-4 apartments for that price,” said Zeki Karadag, who is a relative of Samil Karadag, working for the Family Taxi stand.
Some of the Turkish taxi drivers are well aware of their own disadvantages. “I don’t understand why my colleagues are protesting against Uber,” said Hasan Dogan, a 42-year-old taxi driver with 12 years of experience. “I am renting this taxi and paying most of its expenses. I am not making any money after I pay the rent to the owner of the taxi licence plate,“ Dogan told TRTWorld.
“I will certainly be an Uber driver if it is legalised by the Turkish justice system.”
Back in Ortakoy, Samil Karadag, who manages a taxi stand, tries to find a balance between Uber and local cabs, insisting that both sides need to stay calm and introspective.
“Cab drivers need to fix their behaviour. The chamber of cab drivers, the automobile federation and other organisations also need to fix themselves a bit.”
Melis Alemdar contributed to this article.