When the ridesharing app Uber first began operating in Bucharest just over two years ago, we predicted a quick demise. We failed to see what kind of market share this cheap alternative to taxis could grab for itself in a city where taxis were already ridiculously cheap. Not surprisingly, given that almost all of our confident predictions over the past few years have proven to be totally wide of the mark (the day before the Brexit referendum we were casually telling anyone who asked that there was no point even staying up to watch the result as it was a foregone conclusion: the stay camp would win comfortably) we were completely wrong about Uber’s prospects in Bucharest. The service has thrived, and now covers three other cities in Romania (Brasov, Cluj and Timisoara). We use it all the time.
By Craig Turp
Uber (and a similar app, Taxify) have in fact picked up so much traction that Bucharest’s delightful taxi drivers are now doing all they can to get the service outlawed. A huge protest last month at Piata Victoriei in front of the Romanian government building saw as many as 5000 taxi drivers (complete with their cars, all illegally parked: taxi drivers know no other way) demand action be taken to protect their interests against this ‘foreign’ competitor. An informal agreement was reached whereby the government promised to look into the matter, with vague assurances given that Uber would be regulated to within an inch of its life. These promises were quickly forgotten. Expect more protests from taxi drivers over the summer.
In London, the other city in which we use Uber a lot, the service is far cheaper than a standard black cab. It is also of a far lower quality. Drivers are often useless, know little of London and its streets and are solely reliable on the navigation app Waze – not always accurate – for directions. We once very nearly missed a plane due a driver missing a motorway exit. A black cab driver would never make such an error. The fearsome Knowledge – the exam London taxi drivers need to take before they can get behind the wheel – requires them to study for years in order to become familiar with just about every street in the UK’s capital. The iconic cabs themselves also have to conform to pages of legislation, not least the requirement that a wheelchair can be wheeled into one. Our mother is in a wheelchair, and we can tell you that particular rule is a godsend.
Londoners therefore have a choice: pay more for a better service, pay less for a no-frills experience. In every other city where Uber operates the same is more or less true. Except Bucharest, where it is almost the exact opposite.
Although costing about the same as an ordinary Bucharest taxi, an Uber in this city offers a far, far better experience. Cars are spotlessly clean, drivers are well-dressed, polite and are unable to refuse fares. They also need to obey the laws of the road. Bucharest’s taxis are often dirty, drivers can be rude, they habitually smoke, drive and park how and where they like and although they are obliged to take any fare, as anyone who has ever tried to get into a taxi in central Bucharest at midnight can testify, they are highly selective, often demanding way over the odds for the shortest journeys. Last week we met the newly-arrived manager of one Bucharest’s big five star hotels. First thing he complained about? State of the taxis. ‘They stink,’ he said. ‘And none of them know where they are going.’
Indeed: none of them know where they are going. Conversations along the lines of: ‘Strada Jiului 93 please.’ ‘Where’s that then?’ ‘Well, it’s at Strada Jiului 93.’ ‘I know, but where’s that?’ are not uncommon in Bucharest’s taxis.
In a city in which public transport long ago stopped being a viable option for many people, there is room for both taxis and Uber. Bucharest’s taxi drivers need to stop protesting and up their game: they need to clean themselves up, stop smoking, turn off the music, teach themselves a bit of local geography and stop refusing fares. The biggest threat to Bucharest’s taxi drivers is not Uber, it’s Bucharest taxi drivers.
Craig Turp is the editor of Bucharest In Your Pocket (inyourpocket.com/romania). He blogs about life in the Romanian capital at: bucharestlife.net