The back seat of an Athens taxi has never been my favorite part of the city. In our weekly newspaper, Athens Plus, which sadly closed down last December, we ran a small block of text, a disclaimer if you like, about Athenian cabs, also known by some urbanites as the ?Yellow Peril.?
Part of it read: ?Athenian cabbies are an eclectic bunch of individuals. From the uncouth chain-smoker to the tourist-friendly chatterbox, the whole gamut can be found inside the yellow taxis that splutter around the city.?
It?s a pretty fair assessment of the kind of experience you?ll have traveling in the company of one of the city?s 14,000 professional drivers. There are times when your spirits will be lifted by their professionalism, politeness and charm. But too often they come across as rude and dangerous amateurs.
My late grandfather was a taxi driver — he co-owned one of the first cabs in Thessaloniki in the 1930s, when the standards expected of people in his profession were much higher. One of the reasons that I avoid using cabs in Athens is that I can?t help but think of the contempt in which he would hold some of today?s cabbies.
Yet even as thousands of Greeks and visitors to the country share similar feelings of contempt for taxi drivers after they used their vehicles to block access to Athens International Airport, the port of Piraeus and the city center, we would be better off showing some understanding for their plight rather than raging against what seems like a display of extreme selfishness.
Don?t get me wrong: I winced at the images of tourists having to lug suitcases hundreds of meters in the searing heat to get to or from their planes and boats, and like many other Athenians I was hampered in my efforts to get things done. But I was equally pained by the way the protest is being portrayed.
To say that the images of cabs forming a yellow barricade outside the capital?s main points of entry and exit were damaging for the county?s tourism is self-evident. Yet it didn?t stop many journalists from repeating it ad nauseum without explaining the real cause of this demonstration.
The government was also quick to decry the cabbies? behavior, insisting the liberalization will go ahead, but it didn?t address any of the issues that have prompted cabbies to adopt this extreme form of protest in the vain hope that they might convince the government to change its mind, like they have so many times in the past.
The reason the government is not addressing the issues is because it would have to admit its incompetence. Instead, it?s happy to allow the totally misleading impression to be formed that the cabbies are opposed to liberalization.
The taxi drivers had agreed with the previous transport minister, Dimitris Reppas, on a plan to open up their profession. The limited amount of licenses available for people to operate taxis meant that the permits became tradable commodities. In the boom years, drivers were paying up to 200,000 euros for licenses.
The value of these bits of paper has been wiped out with the sector?s liberalization. I don?t know many people that would have accepted a substantial loss on an investment as a result of a law change without some consternation. But the cabbies set aside their frustration and agreed on a plan with Reppas that seemed to be based on common sense.
Copying systems employed in other European cities, Reppas proposed a scheme whereby the number of licenses to be issued would be calculated every three years based on the population of the city, while taking into account geographical factors and whether it was a tourist destination. The scheme would develop a centralized system for issuing licenses and would reduce the number of taxis in Athens while making a certain amount of permits available to companies that could use seven- and nine-seater vehicles.
Under the plan, the number of taxis in Athens would be limited to 2.5 per 1,000 residents, while in the rest of Greece, it would be two per 1,000. At the moment, there are four taxis per 1,000 Athenians whereas in cities such as Rome, Berlin, Milan, Brussels and Stuttgart, it ranges between 1.3 and 2.1 taxis per 1,000 residents.
Limiting the number of taxis in Athens makes sense for several reasons. It gives authorities a better chance of controlling both the quality of drivers and vehicles, factors whose imporatance cannot be overstated. It reduces the number of cars in the city, easing traffic and reducing pollution. If combined with a campaign to get more people to use public transport, it can boost state coffers. And it gives those driving the taxis a chance of making a living at a time when their clientele is decreasing rapidly.
This final point is vital to understanding the current dispute. Rather than opposing the liberalization of their profession, as portrayed by some media, the cabbies are in favor of the sector being opened up. What they don?t want is a free-for-all that will lead to supply outstripping demand by so much that most drivers will be destroyed financially.
However, this is exactly what the government is now offering them. Less than a month after Reppas made his scheme public, his successor, Yiannis Ragousis, tore up the proposal and said the government was now offering total liberalization of the sector, removing all restrictions and allowing anyone willing to pay 3,000 euros or so in fees to get a license. There was no word on what kind of tests or checks the drivers or vehicles would undergo.
This handbrake turn in policymaking undermined the government?s credibility and drove an articulated truck through its relationship with the taxi drivers. How can the government now ask for the cabbies to behave responsibly when it has destroyed trust and allowed them to become political pawns as egged on by New Democracy, which senses a chance to score some points? The situation is made even worse by Ragousis?s failure to explain why his total liberalization plan is better or what motives lie behind it.
Is it driven by the interests of the public, which might benefit from lower fares if there is increased competition? Is it an attempt to show Greece?s lenders that the government is adopting free-market policies to their fullest? Is it an effort to appear tough to a domestic audience growing weary of PASOK?s indecisiveness and lack of execution? Is it a personal vendetta between him and Reppas? Or is it something else?
Ragousis has been remarkably reluctant to share his thoughts, thereby compounding the problem. At a time when so much is changing and people?s livelihoods are on the line, this like-it-or-lump-it form of governing is an insult to voters and adds to the tension already out there. If it’s going to have any hope of holding the country together, the government will have to engage and explain. Anyone who has ridden in the back of an Athens cab will tell you that the journey is much more enjoyable when you find some common ground with your driver.