OPINION

Kiosks and taxis in the grip of crisis

Ubiquitous, distinctive, frequently useful and maddeningly self-serving, corner kiosks and Athens’s yellow cabs are symbols of the country’s closed professions. The unprecedented challenges they face reveal how fast Greece is changing as the economic crisis takes grip. Until recently, owning or operating a kiosk or taxi provided a good and steady income as the limited number of licenses created an oligopoly for those with the precious papers. This was reflected by the fact that until recently a license for a cab cost about 250,000 euros. A few months ago it was half that; now, cabbies say, they would be lucky to get 60,000 euros – if anyone was buying. Kiosks, once the most coveted two or three square meters of real estate in Greece, are closing down one after the other. The crisis is overwhelming these two symbols of Greece. The kiosks (endearing in their wealth of merchandise and infuriating in the way they annex ever greater parts of the sidewalk) are being squeezed by a combination of high taxes and the reduction of customers’ disposable income. Cab owners and drivers have managed to price themselves out of the market for many customers, raising their fares at the same time that the government is planning to break open their profession and allow more people to operate taxis. It obviously does not help cabbies that their reputation for rudeness, cheating and self-centeredness has made it easier for customers to turn to public transport now that every euro counts. Cabbies complain that they are already short of work and that opening up their profession will destroy their livelihood. So, change is clearly upon kiosks and taxis. What will it look like? Will it be for better or worse? Will the number of kiosks and taxis – and many other factors of Greek life – disappear or will they be taken over by companies that will be able to achieve economies of scale, squeezing profits out of their employees and customers where the self-employed cannot? The head of the Attica kiosk owners’ union, Yiannis Plakopoulos, has the right attitude: Use the kiosk’s prime location to make it relevant to customers again. Kiosks can become service centers, providing a variety of goods and services that their location and long work hours – sometimes 24/7 – allow. The marriage of the digital age with such operating hours and locations offer a world of opportunity for diversification and specialization – kiosks can find ways to meet the needs of harried citizens. Taxi drivers may have a harder task gaining the confidence of customers but they have to realize that they will survive only if they offer services of a level that matches the price of the ride. This they will achieve only when they become accountable to someone – either the shift supervisor of a large taxi company or a watchdog set up by the drivers’ union itself. For too long, cabbies have allowed their profession to be sullied by bullies, crooks and incompetents. If they want to survive in the new, very demanding environment, they will have to become serious professionals and seek to please – rather than exploit – their customers. This applies to every sector of Greece’s economy. Two of its most visible manifestations – kiosks and taxis – will demonstrate whether the Greeks’ instinct for survival is alive after all these years of distorted development and lawlessness.