Under the minarets of Istanbul’s legendary skyline, an unusual turf war is brewing between the powerful association of taxi owners and the city authorities.
Being a taxi driver in the metropolis which spans two continents and three waterways is not easy. Unlike other cities around the world, drivers do not own their own cars. Instead, Istanbul’s 50,000 taxi drivers hire the 17,395 registered cars in circulation, working in shifts.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, the city was home to around 8 million people. Since then, the population has doubled, but the number of available taxi permits has not changed. The demand has created a cartel of wealthy licensees: the price of a license fluctuates, but is currently 2.6 million Turkish liras (£ 214,000).
As a result, the industry has a brutal reputation. Many license owners remain anonymous, using brokers to sublet their cars, and their union – which leans towards Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – has significant influence within the politically divided Istanbul transport and the national transport ministry. Uber attempted to enter the Istanbul market in 2014, but was banned thanks to union lobbying, which labeled them terrorists. Last week, prosecutors filed an indictment against the head of government of Uber Turkey for unfair competition, demanding a prison sentence of up to two years.
Fights between yellow taxi drivers and pirate outfits are frequent; some involving knives and guns become fatal. If customers are lucky enough to find a taxi, it is often a difficult business for them too. Sexual harassment, racism, overcharging, rudeness and reckless driving are persistent problems.
After receiving a record 43,000 complaints about driver behavior so far this year, the Istanbul Municipality has stepped up efforts to reform the city’s taxi operations. Now the battle lines have been drawn and things could go wrong.
“We want to end the privatization of the taxi industry and put it through the municipality instead, as it works in Berlin, New York and Dubai. It is only in Turkey that we have this system, ”said Utku Cihan, Head of Transport Management of Istanbul Municipality.
“We are working on the extension of the rail network and we have moved the bus lines so that they are public; we want a climate where people can rely more on public transport as well as taxis. But it’s just a fact that we don’t have enough taxis. We commissioned reports that show we need to add 6,000 [licenced taxi] plates but the union refuses, ”he said.
“Taxis are only one part of the transport system, but we need to integrate it better to provide better quality services to the whole city. It’s a tough fight, but we’ll keep trying.
Ekrem İmamoğlu was an unknown figure when he was chosen as the opposition coalition candidate for Istanbul mayor in the 2019 elections. But standing after the Turkish electoral council overturned his first victory, the former construction boss has become the AKP’s most prominent challenger in power for years, ending 25 years of domination by the Islamist party in the country’s cultural and economic hub.
İmamoğlu’s outburst has waned a bit since then – he has been accused of flirting with anti-Syrian refugee sentiment and has been criticized by the political left for supporting the government’s 2019 campaign against Kurdish forces in- beyond the Syrian border. But many in Turkey, tired of the country’s worsening financial problems, see him as a potential candidate against Erdoğan in the elections scheduled for 2023.
Istanbul accounts for around 30% of Turkey’s GDP, and the loss of the city has had financial implications for AKP sponsorship networks. As expected, Ankara has so far made İmamoğlu’s tenure as mayor a tall order. He is locked in battles with the presidency over funding, pandemic management and Erdoğan’s self-proclaimed “mad” Istanbul Canal project. If the mayor can win these battles, it will add to the perception that the power of the old guard is diminishing.
The Taxi Owners Union, for its part, says reform efforts should focus on improving technology for more efficient use of taxis, rather than increasing the number of cars on the road. which will increase competition. Eyüp Aksu, head of the Taxi Owners Association, also argued that the city’s notorious traffic means ticket prices should be increased to make shorter trips more attractive to drivers.
Some drivers fear that working conditions will not improve, whoever is responsible.
“I have been driving this car for five years and have never met the owner. I just paid my daily rent at the auto center. It’s a total mafia… We don’t have social security. Anyone can do it, if you are willing to earn so little. They don’t do criminal checks. It’s not a good job, ”said Serdar Yilmaz, a driver taking a break at a taxi rank in Beyoğlu nightlife district.
“What İmamoğlu is saying is that he will license a ‘company’ that the city runs, so maybe it will just replace the current license plate owners with new owners. The licenses must belong to the drivers. taxi themselves.
The municipality’s proposals to increase the number of licenses have been rejected by the Istanbul Transport Coordination Center – where representatives of AKP-loyal ministries and public institutions have a majority of votes – nine times in the past of the last year.
The compromises of İmamoğlu’s office, which ultimately suggested 1,000 additional licenses instead of 6,000, were refused.
For now, the municipality has decided to continue setting up its own permit system in parallel with the existing one. So far he has recruited 1,000 dolmuş drivers (shared minibuses) who have lost business due to the pandemic for the new fleet.
The Istanbul taxi war has begun: drivers, start your engines.