The Uber logo on a vehicle. Picture: REUTERS/ROBERT GALBRAITH
The Uber logo on a vehicle. Picture: REUTERS/ROBERT GALBRAITH

Istanbul — An Uber driver keeps a metal rod close at hand during his daily drives through Istanbul.

Alarmed by violent attacks in recent weeks allegedly carried out by angry yellow cab drivers who want Turkey to ban the ride-hailing company, Levent says he’s even considering carrying a gun and asked that his last name be withheld for safety reasons.

"I work with the fear of getting physically assaulted by cab drivers every day," he said inside the van he drives, a Mercedes Benz Vito, popular among Istanbul’s Uber ilk.

He is among the more than 5,000 Uber drivers in the city of 15-million waiting to learn their fate as an Istanbul court considers two legal cases, filed by taxi associations, arguing the app-based service undermines competition and breaks the law.

Yet while Uber is fighting for survival in cities like London, which revoked its licence in 2017, discontent has rarely taken as aggressive a turn as it has in Turkey’s largest city.

On March 10, shots were fired at an Uber vehicle on its way to pick up a customer in the crowded Istanbul district of Kucukcekmece. Local media have reported incidents where groups of taxi drivers posing as customers gang up and assault Uber drivers after hailing them to quiet street sides.

"My drivers are scared. Cab drivers harass and attack them everywhere in Istanbul," said Bekir Cambaz, who owns 52 Uber vehicles and two yellow cabs. "One of my drivers was just hospitalised due to brain concussion after getting beaten up at the main bus terminal."

In many ways, it’s more of the same for Uber. In Europe and North America, traditional cabs are the most virulent critics of the service, which expanded quickly beyond its home base in San Francisco partly by disregarding local regulations. This has spurred protests by cabbies — including some in Paris that turned violent — and led to run-ins with national authorities and new laws aimed at reining in the gig economy.

"My drivers are scared. Cab drivers harass and attack them everywhere in Istanbul"

Fed up with what they deem unfair competition, hundreds of taxi drivers protested outside the Istanbul Palace of Justice on Monday to call for an Uber ban. One of their primary gripes is that Uber drivers dodge the hefty fees they pay.

Istanbul has issued about 17,000 taxi licence plates, a figure that’s barely changed in two decades. They’re a hot commodity, now costing about 1.69-million lira ($434,000) each, according to the website of Kale Ticaret, which trades them. Cabbies rent licences for 7,000-8,000 lira a month, so they need a steady stream of customers to make ends meet.

"My profit fell by 30% since Uber started its operations in Turkey" in 2014, lamented Mehmet Yavuz, who paid for his cab licence by selling land he’d inherited from his parents.

Uber operates in Turkey on a so-called D-2 licence, similar to what chartered buses use. These are cheaper: an investor with 30,000 lira of capital pays 15,000 lira a year to operate a fleet of at least eight cars, plus 300 lira for every vehicle. Drivers can rent this licence for 3,550 lira annually.

Lawyers representing cab operators are trying to capitalise on a rule that stipulates D-2 licence-holders register passenger information with the government one hour before any trip — something Uber drivers couldn’t do since they usually respond to calls within 15 minutes.

Of the two pending court cases, the first will be heard in May, the second in June. Uber said it could not comment on an ongoing litigation.

"We are appalled by the violence and are doing everything we can to support drivers," it said in an e-mailed statement.

Unlike in other cities, Istanbul’s Ubers charge slightly more than conventional cabs — but they’re popular among Turks, especially women, who feel more secure seeing how other passengers rate a driver. Some, like 26-year old Istanbul resident Pinar Cengiz, said yellow cabs often refuse to take her on short distances.

‘If the court rules against us, we will kill Uber drivers’

"We are in favour of freedom of enterprise. We won’t leave our cab drivers to be victims, but Uber gets market share because it’s well received by the citizens," customs and trade minister Bulent Tufenkci told reporters in Hatay province late on Wednesday, adding the ministry was analysing the sector to make a decision on how to proceed.

The Uber debate in Turkey has become as polarising as politics under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Drivers at the courthouse protest chanted: "Jewish, Zionist Uber! Get out of my country!" One said he would stop voting for the ruling AK party if Uber’s licence were not revoked.

Others disclosed violent intentions: "If the court rules against us, we will kill Uber drivers," said Murat Aslan, who saved up for 15 years to buy his own taxi licence.

Eyup Aksu, chairperson of the Chamber of Istanbul Taxi Operators, said he had received assurances from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Uber was indeed breaking the law, although the prime minister’s office declined to comment when reached by phone.

Uber drivers like Nejat Erkan Erdogan are on high alert. It’s only his first month on the job and he’s been attacked three times, including a fist fight with a taxi driver who tried to get into his car.

"Sometimes I drive past my passengers as I see angry cab drivers waiting for me on the side of the road," he said.