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.”


Despite efforts to stop lira fall, Turks still worried

Updated 26 May 2018
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Despite efforts to stop lira fall, Turks still worried

ANKARA: After the embattled Turkish lira weakened against the US dollar this week, Turks remain troubled over the economy despite the government’s reassurances.
The lira’s drama worsened on Wednesday when Japanese investors sold Turkish assets, after comments by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spooked investors earlier in May.
The lira hit 4.92 against the dollar before paring back some of its losses on Wednesday after an emergency central bank interest rate hike, but for many it’s not enough.
In a busy bureau de change on one of Ankara’s popular streets, thoughts turn to the worsening situation and fears that the country is already in a “currency crisis,” as experts at Commerzbank have described it.
During AFP’s visit, dozens came in to change their liras into gold, dollars and euros.
Ali Yilik indicated he was not convinced by Ankara’s reassurances as he changed his money into dollars for work.
“Who wouldn’t be worried about the exchange rate (situation)? This is not something that happens in normal conditions. It is extraordinary,” Yilik, who sells construction material, said.
Ali’s son Yahya Yilik, who is the manager at Tunali Doviz, said more Turks were coming in buying euros and dollars amid worries that the lira would fall further.
“They think the lira will keep losing value,” Yilik told AFP, adding that interest rate increases were a “temporary measure.”
In the past “one or two weeks,” the manager said the center had sold more foreign exchange than those wanting to buy lira.
The fall followed Erdogan comments during his UK visit mid-May when he indicated he wanted a greater say in monetary policy if he won in June 24 polls. This then raised concerns over economic policy becoming more unpredictable.
Student Necdet Guven was in the bureau de change to obtain dollars ahead of a trip to the US in mid-June but said he was “really worried” about the economy.
“Because everyday our economy gets worse. In the past, Turkey used to be among the top countries for agriculture and livestock, but now we import meat from Serbia and straw from Russia,” Guven lamented.
“We are not that developed a country in terms of industry,” he added, saying he believed Turkey had the potential to develop the economy further.
The lira appeared to show no signs of dramatic improvement and was at 4.70 against the dollar on Friday. In the past month, the lira has lost over 16 percent of its value against the greenback.
In a bid to ease concerns, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek — an ex Merrill Lynch economist trusted by markets — on Friday said the central bank “would do whatever is necessary” during an interview with NTV broadcaster.
“There is no question of taking steps back on either the independence of the central bank or the rule-based market economy,” Simsek vowed.
But not everyone looked at the situation pessimistically.
Orhan Albayrak said the euro and dollar’s value was increasing because of “outside forces’ economic pressure on Turkey,” adding there was “an artificial rise.”
But Albayrak, a wholesaler, was hopeful the lira’s fortunes would improve toward the date of the presidential and parliamentary elections.
“But when there are five, 10 days to the elections, I believe this increase will reverse,” he added.
Albayrak said the three percent key rate rise had some impact, but believed the lira could improve and “reach 4.2, 4.3” with further central bank moves supported by the government.
After the rate hike on Wednesday evening, Erdogan insisted Turkey would adhere to the global governance principles on monetary policy in the new system post-election.
But, Erdogan added he would not let those principles “finish our country off.”