Foes turn friends as the ride-hailing giant readies itself to work with yellow cab drivers.
Uber has re-launched its service in Turkey with a slight twist - it will work with the same cabbies who were behind a campaign that forced the ride-hailing giant out of the market in 2019.
An Istanbul court overturned the ban on Uber in December, drawing a mixed reaction from yellow taxi drivers who had long complained that the popular application was eating into their business.
“We will challenge the court’s decision,” said Eyup Aksu, the head of Chamber of Cab Drivers, an Istanbul-based association of taxi owners.
“Our apprehension is based on Uber’s past. Everyone knows how Uber has damaged the cab business across the world.”
Thousands of taxi drivers took to Istanbul’s streets in 2018 in protest as the app became increasingly popular among tourists. The fight turned nasty after taxi drivers began hunting down Uber drivers to beat them up.
The California-based tech firm, which promised to revolutionise the gig economy, is under scrutiny in different parts of the world over predatory pricing allegations, non-competitive practices and the way it treats its drivers.
One of the points of contention between Istanbul taxi drivers and Uber, was the XL service: Uber contractors who ferried customers in cozy leather-seated Mercedes and Volkswagen vans which at times offered passengers free drinks and sweets.
That service was popular not just among the 50 million-plus tourists who came to Turkey in the pre-pandemic era, it was also becoming a preferable mode of transportation for locals.
The court decision on Uber says it can work with the cabbies as the ride-hailing service hasn’t indicated if it intends to introduce its XL service as well.
Istanbul’s taxi drivers are notorious for their bad behaviour and the habit of getting into needless conversations with customers. It’s not uncommon to see a video of a taxi driver misbehaving going viral.
Samil Karadag, the manager of a family-owned taxi stand in Istanbul’s Ortakoy neighbourhood, said Uber’s return will tighten competition with the city’s regular cab drivers, making them rethink their attitude towards customers.
“I think Uber’s comeback will force both drivers and cab owners to get their act together. As a result, this will mostly have a positive impact in the Turkish cab market.”
Like elsewhere, the pandemic has hit Turkey’s tourism hard as the number of visitors dropped more than half to 15 million in 2020 from 51.9 million a year earlier.
From the shops which sell Turkish delights, to hotel operators, everyone in the country has seen a slide in their income.
Karadag is relieved at Uber’s return in the backdrop of this situation. “It could benefit us because our taxi drivers have run into issues with local applications such as BiTaksi,” he said.
With its ability to quickly connect a passenger with the closest available ride, Uber has expanded to 600 cities since its launch in 2010.
But it’s up for some bumps in Turkey - even if it has the legal cover for now.
“We do not trust Uber,” said Aksu, the head of the Istanbul cab drivers association, adding that he’d prefer Turkish ride hailing apps over Uber.
Karadag said there’s a fear among taxi drivers that despite the court decision, Uber will re-introduce the XL service.
“We don’t know exactly what happens in the future.”
A game of licenses
Even after the Uber service was banned, the taxi drivers said they didn’t see any marked improvement in their income mainly because the pandemic has forced people to remain indoors.
“Our business has dropped by about 50 percent. We are incurring losses,” 45-year-old Aksu said. He hoped that the government would come up with an incentive package for the cab drivers, who number around 17,400 in Istanbul alone, making them a formidable vote bank.
Due to the pandemic, working hours have been reduced and in recent weeks the government also imposed lockdowns during weekends.
The price of a taxi licence, which used to fetch $434,000, has come down to $240,000 now, said Aksu.
Zeki Karadag, another cab driver,said there was a time he “could buy 3-4 apartments” in exchange for his taxi license. Istanbul taxi drivers often talk about the worth of the license in terms of its real estate value. It’s now hard to buy even a single apartment against a license.
Taxi rents paid by drivers who don’t own their own cabs have also taken a hit.
Before the pandemic, monthly taxi rent was around 9,000 Turkish liras ($1,204), according to Karadag. It now stands at $535, he says.
The number of yellow taxis in Istanbul hasn’t changed since 1991, when authorities auctioned taxi number plates for the last time even as Istanbul’s population increased to 15 million. Efforts to put more taxis on the roads have been met with protest by cab drivers.
Despite the Uber threat, Karadag said it’s time for the cab drivers to look forward.
“We should have some confidence in ourselves. Instead of focusing on what Uber does to us, we need to put our own house in order,” he said.