And here we go again-taxi, Uber, strikes. The reason why we still talk about it is because the situation has not been dealt with yet. All we do is procrastinate, release badly implemented rules just to please everyone, ending up not pleasing anyone. We still talk about it because of the violence on the streets of Rome and Italy in general, being it punching someone or freezing traffic, stopping a service that, by definition, should be public.
The question is serious, and makes many people restless in one way or another: it is about the (lack of) liberalization of the taxi sector, the (unfair) competition by Uber, rent with drivers, car sharing and all the other emerging phenomena of the so called sharing economy from UberPOP to BlaBlaCar. There are corporative interests at stake, those meant to defend the privileges of entrepreneurs who, over time, spent their money on a license worth tens of thousands of euro whose value could dramatically drop overnight. Not to mention, we don’t now but we will soon do, self-driving cars: Uber, Google and Tesla, to name but a few, are already testing them on the road pushing it as far as to test trucks too. Even if technology is not ready yet, it will be in 5-10 years, which will bring a revolution in the concept of mobility.
I believe the heart of the matter, anyhow, is to finally decide whether it is better to save the interests of some, small entrepreneurs who bought a license, or leave room to innovation with its direct and indirect benefits for the society as a whole. The topic is rather complex but I think one cannot stop an innovation that is as breakthrough as the one digital technologies are bringing, both in Italy and in the entire world. Some sort of regulation is certainly needed but we cannot trap the digital revolution in some antediluvian laws that neither represent today’s nor tomorrow’s society.
How many times did I stay in line waiting for a taxi, perhaps on a rainy day or after a long flight and, when my turn came, had to do a treasure hunt to find someone who accepted credit cards? It’s easy: just walk the whole row and, 10 or 15 cabs later in the queue, you will find someone who “accepts” them just for the sake of an earlier ride. You will find that someone because now everyone or so have a POS on board despite the vast majority of taxi drivers see it as a useless fee bo be paid (unless this allows them to leave earlier).
It is this hypocrisy that I do not think can persists: the will to stand against any innovation to preserve a status acquired in past years that will never come back. Something that will never come back anyway. Think of a tourist in Italy, who must call a taxi maybe without any euro in his pocket: he does not know how to call it (there is no single number and the apps are still too fragmented and not internationalized), must look for an ATM, must find someone who can speak English… once he has found the Radio Taxi phone number. He could instead open his app (probably Uber because it is already installed on his phone), know where to call the taxi (using the GPS from his mobile), receive a quote and pay through a credit card or PayPal. All without saying a word in Italian, a wonderful but little-known language. No wonder tourists do this. And since Italians are no less, it is not clear they should use a service level lower than what is provided – or should be available – to tourists..
Innovation generates competition, reduces costs and improves services for all: it makes them more accessible and democratized. Just think of how many photographs we take today on a trip, all armed with digital cameras or mobile phones, and how many we did when photographic films had to be developed and the cameras were precious objects. Yet no Kodak photographer took to the streets.
Taxi drivers are entrepreneurs who made an entrepreneurial choice and that have be competitive in an constantly evolving market.
The solution does not pass through conservation of the species. Rather than stopping everything that is different, we should think how to differentiate the service taxis offer, making it comfortable, fast and reliable. How to take advantage of its capillarity, which no other service can rely on. New and innovative booking systems should be introduced (some radios are trying, accepting payments via PayPal, despite some drivers’ resistance) and sign international agreements – or at least national ones – to be more known (for instance booking a taxi in Paris, Milan and Berlin using the same app). We must think of having means that can offer services to disabled people and that, in general, are comfortable and spacious vehicles. Perhaps electric cars, also touching the sensitivity of some for environmental issues, or the desire for low noise.
From a political standpoint this is a complex matter. It entails million of votes of people who most likely than not took loans to pay for their licenses; something that is however no different from the loans Kodak photographers took to pay for their shops. A solution could be to double taxi licenses in Italy, assigning every taxi driver two licenses rather than one. This would allow them to sell the second one, making some money, or assign it to their children or a family member. In fact, it would increase the number of taxis in circulation, numbers that in the big cities of Italy is now much lower than in European ones. Simultaneously, however, we should allow new forms of mobility to make room in our lives. With clear rules, obviously for everyone, that protect consumers in the first place.