Taxi drivers, Uber square up on Istanbul’s roads

Official yellow taxis and van vehicles wait for their customers at the Eminonu district in Istanbul, on March 30, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 22 April 2018
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Taxi drivers, Uber square up on Istanbul’s roads

  • Uber has enjoyed soaring popularity in Istanbul, where users appreciate the cashless payment system, security and convenience of hailing a cab by phone
  • This has stoked antagonism with official taxi drivers, who have brought legal cases in Istanbul in a bid to have the app blocked in Turkey

ISTANBUL: Istanbul’s bright yellow taxis, ubiquitous and perennially honking for custom, appear ingrained in the daily life of the Turkish metropolis.
But could the fast-growing ride sharing app Uber make them a thing of the past?
Uber has enjoyed soaring popularity in Istanbul, where users appreciate the cashless payment system, security and convenience of hailing a cab by phone.
But, as in several other European cities, this has stoked antagonism with official taxi drivers, who have brought legal cases in Istanbul in a bid to have the app blocked in Turkey.
Tensions have also spilt over into violence, with Uber drivers complaining of being verbally harassed, beaten up or even shot at.
Kemal Kuru, an Uber driver since last year, said he was cornered and beaten by a group as he set off for a concert hall in the Sisli district last month on a job.
“I went to pick up a customer around midnight but someone blocked the road and harassed me verbally,” he told AFP.
“I got out of the car and all of a sudden 10 people attacked me... My teeth were broken and my lip was split.”
Kuru said the assailants could not be immediately identified as they fled into the darkness. But he pointed the finger at taxi drivers.
“I believe our income is getting on their nerves and they think we are stealing their customers.”
In March, shots were fired at an Uber vehicle in Istanbul’s Kucukcekmece district. The driver escaped unhurt.
Uber drivers say they are easily targeted as the vans they generally drive are unusual in the city.
But representatives of official taxi companies condemn such accusations — widely publicized in the Turkish media — as a stunt to discredit their business.
Eyup Aksu, head of the main taxi drivers’ association in Istanbul, accused Uber of launching a “publicity campaign” in an attempt to influence the pending legal cases.
“Taxi drivers have never resorted to violence against Uber. This is a smear campaign to blacken the reputation of taxis,” he told AFP in his Istanbul office.
There are almost 17,400 official yellow taxis in Istanbul, providing an essential and relatively affordable service in a gigantic city where public transport often falls short.
But as new competitors like Uber have emerged, the official taxis have often failed to keep pace with changing times and society.
They have been slow to implement systems to pay by card, install panic buttons that help female passengers in particular feel more secure and are only now considering lights to indicate if the cab is occupied or free.
In a bid to trump Uber, Istanbul taxis are themselves now becoming part of a digital network called iTaksi that allows passengers to order them from their phone.
Aksu admitted some deficiencies in the taxi sector but said taxis were transforming to catch up with Uber’s standards.
“We are shifting to luxurious taxi transport. We now have VIP transport in some touristic places and airports,” he said.
Meanwhile horror taxi stories abound in Istanbul — not just from incredulous tourists but also exasperated locals — about being over-charged, driven a circuitous route to ramp up the meter or being given fake change.
In a well publicized case, an Istanbul court this month handed a taxi driver a suspended jail term for having taken a Saudi passenger on an epic city tour rather than to the airport as requested.
But Istanbul taxi drivers insist they are working hard to make an honest living from a tough business where margins were already tight and now squeezed further by Uber’s presence.
Taxi drivers rent their car from the owner of the license, whose cost of 1.5 million lira (300,000 euros, $370,000) is well beyond most drivers.
The number of license plates available for taxis has stayed stable as the city’s population boomed, driving up their price.
Taxi driver Burhan Yuksek, looking for passengers in the busy waterside Eminonu district, said his business is suffering “hugely” because of Uber.
“I work by a hotel. We used to receive 40-50 calls daily from the hotel and currently it has dropped to 15-20,” he said. “They are pirates. They are stealing our labor and bread.”
Taxi drivers feel they have political backing, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly pictured drinking tea with the taxi community.
In the bigger of two legal actions brought by taxi drivers’ associations against Uber, an Istanbul court is due to resume hearing the case on June 4.
The tension in Turkey is one of a number of headaches for Uber and its new chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over last August after founder Travis Kalanick was ousted following a series of scandals.
In London where its drivers number around 40,000, Uber lost its license over its approach to reporting serious criminal offenses and its criminal record checks for drivers.
But it is allowed to operate in the British capital pending an appeal set for later this year.
Uber also put a temporary halt to its self-driving car program in the United States after an accident involving one of its cars near Phoenix killed a pedestrian.
In service for three years in Turkey, Uber has 5,000 vehicles and 8,000 drivers in Istanbul.
Vedat Kaya, of the Tourism and Development Platform, said Uber represented a “revolt against the taxi monopoly,” adding that some 4,500 taxi drivers had already switched to work with Uber.
Former taxi driver Yavuz Sarac, who joined Uber last summer, says he did it after realizing he would not own his own business “no matter if I work for 150 years.”
“Uber has presented new opportunities. I’ve owned my business,” he said, complaining that taxi drivers were exploited by the plate owners, while the Uber license was much less costly.
“I earn a living for my family. To me, it is a kind of escape from slavery to freedom.”


US firms warn next China tariffs to cost Americans from cradle to grave

Updated 16 min 16 sec ago
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US firms warn next China tariffs to cost Americans from cradle to grave

  • Six days of public hearings on the proposed duties of up to 25 percent will start on Monday in Washington
  • Most businesses argued that the tariffs will cause harm and higher costs for products ranging from Halloween costumes and Christmas lights to nuclear fuel inputs

WASHINGTON: A broad cross-section of US businesses has a message for the Trump administration: new tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports will force Americans to pay more for items they use throughout their daily lives, from cradles to coffins.
Six days of public hearings on the proposed duties of up to 25 percent will start on Monday in Washington as part of President Donald Trump’s and the US Trade Representative’s efforts to pressure Beijing for sweeping changes to its trade and economic policies.
Unlike previous rounds of US tariffs, which sought to shield consumers by targeting Chinese industrial machinery, electronic components and other intermediate goods, thousands of consumer products could be directly hit with tariffs by late September.
The $200 billion list targets Chinese seafood, furniture and lighting products, tires, chemicals, plastics, bicycles and car seats for babies.
“USTR’s proposed tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese imports dramatically expands the harm to American consumers, workers, businesses, and the economy,” the US Chamber of Commerce said in written testimony for the hearing.
The top US business lobbying group said the Trump administration lacks a “coherent strategy” to address China’s theft of intellectual property and other harmful trade practices and called for “serious discussions” with Beijing.
Mid-level Trump administration officials and their Chinese counterparts are expected to meet later this week in Washington to discuss their trade dispute. But it is unclear whether the talks will have any effect on the implementation of US tariffs and retaliation by China.
In more than 1,400 written comments submitted to USTR that will be echoed in the hearings, most businesses argued that the tariffs will cause harm and higher costs for products ranging from Halloween costumes and Christmas lights to nuclear fuel inputs, while a small number praised them or asked that they be extended to other products.
Graco Children’s Products Inc, a unit of Newell Brands Inc., said tariffs “will have a direct negative impact on our company, American parents and most importantly the safety of American children.”
The company said higher prices may prompt more parents to buy car seats, swings and portable play yards on the second-hand market.
“The proposed tariffs may force parents to use unsafe sleeping environments or let children dangerously co-sleep with parents,” Graco wrote. The tariff “only causes a children safety issue; it will not convince China to change its policies.”
Evenflo Feeding said the tariffs will hit manual breast pumps “and would cause disproportionate economic harm to US interests.”
At the other end of the life cycle, Centennial Casket Corp. President Douglas Chen said his Plano, Texas-based company relies exclusively on Chinese-made caskets and the tariffs would cause “great loss” and raise costs for “grieving families purchasing caskets for their loved ones at one of the worst times of their life.”
The Internet Association, representing companies including Facebook Inc, Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc., said the tariffs “would cause disproportionate economic harm to American Internet companies. The list includes products that impact how Internet companies function.”
Westinghouse Electric Co., the leading US nuclear fuel producer, said it relies on China for zirconium and zirconium powders — key inputs for tubes used in nuclear fuel assemblies that it uses at plants in Utah, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
There is no US source of zirconium so the tariff would “raise the cost for Westinghouse to manufacture nuclear fuel for US commercial nuclear power plants” and it ultimately “would increase the cost of electricity to a significant percentage of US electricity consumers,” the company said in a filing.
Huffy Corp, the largest US bicycle brand, with 4 million Chinese-made bikes sold annually, said a 25 percent tariff poses a “serious threat to the company.”
Huffy CEO Bill Smith wrote that the tariffs should have been put in place 20 years ago when Huffy and other US bicycle makers sought to increase the 11 percent US bicycle tariff because of aggressive Chinese imports. When this effort failed, Huffy closed three US plants in 1998 and 1999, terminating 2,000 employees and shifting to Chinese bikes.
“This proposed tariff is too little, too late,” Smith wrote, adding that now, a higher tariff would “only create problems” and cost jobs at independent US bicycle dealers.
“There is no other country in Asia or Europe that can provide the volume Huffy requires as China is the largest bicycle producer in the world,” he said.