As Istanbul’s population grows to more than 15 million people, the taxi demand in Turkey’s most crowded city has increased. But for the lucky few who are able to find a cab, the ride is not as comfortable as expected with many complaining of overcharging and rude drivers.
Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) seeks to boost the numbers of taxis but it finds opposition among taxi associations. IBB says it is the only way to solve the taxi problem while associations say it is better to improve the conditions of vehicles than increasing their numbers.
More than 50,000 drivers, working in shifts, operate some 17,395 taxis across the city. Taxis are the easiest way to get around the densely crowded city if you are unfamiliar with Istanbul or tired of packed mass transit. Yet, their drivers are at the center of increasing reports of complaints, from overcharging tourists, picking “moneyed” foreigners over Turkish customers and not accepting short-distance rides. Police stepped up taxi inspections in recent days, fining drivers and impounding their cars but the problem continues.
IBB repeatedly offered to add new taxi license plates to the city but the politically divided municipal assembly has failed to find a solution to the problem so far. The municipality’s proposals to issue 5,000 and 1,000 new license plates respectively were turned down at the meetings of a transportation coordination body.
Eyüp Aksu is among the strong opponents of the municipality’s proposals. Head of Istanbul Taxi Drivers Tradesmen Association (ITEO) says the city has “enough” taxis and instead, efforts should focus on improving technology for efficient use of taxis. Orhan Demir, deputy secretary-general at IBB who moderates the transportation coordination body’s meetings over taxi numbers, says taxi drivers are not using ride-hailing technologies much and they wanted to boost the number of taxis in the city to 23,000. Demir says the city’s taxis should have “a corporate structure” and this can be possible if their plan to introduce taxis owned by IBB goes ahead.
Professor Hüseyin Murat Çelik, a city planning expert from Istanbul Technical University (ITÜ), agrees with Aksu, citing the need for more efficient use of the limited number of taxis. “Taxis are supposed to carry passengers at least 68% of the time they operate during the day but this rate dropped to 32% during the coronavirus pandemic,” Çelik, who carried out a study on the issue, told Anadolu Agency (AA).
Drivers “picking” customers are to blame for taxis working below their capacity but drivers themselves point out the high costs of operating taxis, forcing them to earn as much as possible in a short time, instead of working long hours. “Taxis carry passengers in an average of 3.2 hours out of every 10 hours and they are empty rest of the day,” Çelik highlights.
For Aksu, the municipality’s demand to increase the numbers is something politically motivated. “We heard that they made promises to some groups,” he told AA, implying the municipality sought to create a new area of revenue for supporters of Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu.
He says the lack of an integrated, centralized system leaves some drivers without fares. “We need a system bringing together passengers and drivers. Thus, we can prevent cases like a passenger seeking taxicabs on one street for a long time while a taxi driver waits for new customers for hours on a nearby street,” he said.
Several apps are available to that extent, including IBB’s iTaksi, but Aksu says they have failed. “Equipment used for integration into the app is very fragile and affected by extreme temperatures and does not work properly in locating taxis or customers. We have called the municipality to allow more apps instead of forcing iTaksi on drivers. Taxi drivers should be able to choose any app,” he said.
Orhan Demir says about 85% of taxis had free iTaksi devices and the taxi problem is “not about digitalization.” “Taxi drivers unfortunately do not use the app as much. They can use other apps to find customers but iTaksi will remain as the main app, to inspect the drivers,” he said. Professor Çelik says other widely used taxi apps were not authorized by the transportation body of the municipality and the use of iTaksi, integrated into each taxi with special equipment, is not very sustainable.
Upon the fierce opposition, IBB came up with a new solution and decided to convert other vehicles to taxis, instead of adding new ones to the city’s fleet. Some 250 shared taxis known as “dolmuş” and 750 minibusses will serve as the “new taxis” for the city once the municipality starts issuing licenses.
Taxi drivers are willing to carry passengers over short distances but this becomes a problem during chronic traffic jams. It is not sustainable for them to even accept long-distance rides. Aksu says to solve the taxi problem in the country, the traffic problem needs to be resolved first.
The behavior of taxi drivers, adds more problems to the mix, from charging extra fees for baggage use to ignoring potential rides during bad weather, Demir says citing complaints filed to the municipality. “There is a need to increase the quality of taxis,” he said.
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