Taxi drivers' unions have fiercely opposed any move to increase the number of licences necessary to practice the profession.
If you’ve ever tried catching a taxi in Italy, it’s likely you’ll think twice before attempting to repeat the experience. In spite of the heatwave that is currently gripping the country, long queues of people can be seen every day outside train stations or at the main clubs at night, waiting in vain for a white car to take them around. Phone calls to operators often remain unanswered, and rates can be surprisingly high.
As taxi drivers keep opposing any attempt to reform, the service remains regulated by outdated norms and is not able to meet a growing demand coming from both residents and tourists.
Part of the problem lies with the taxi licence system.
Italian taxis are legally considered a means of public transport: they’re regulated by a law originally approved in 1992 which, among other things, provides that only licensed professionals can work as taxi drivers. Licences should be granted by local authorities through recurring public calls for bids. However, these applications are extremely rare and generally offer a limited amount of new permissions.
Nowadays, the easiest way to obtain a licence is to buy one from a former taxi driver who doesn’t need it anymore: over the years, this system has fostered a parallel market with incredibly inflated prices, where the cost of a single licence can reach hundreds of thousands of euros, according to several investigative reports.
Traditionally, taxi drivers' unions oppose the sale of new licences, fearing that the documents they spent so much money on could lose value: as in basic economic principles, the scarcer a commodity is, the more valuable it becomes.
Furthermore, according to trade unions, the introduction of new licences wouldn’t solve the bigger issue of mobility and public transportation in the country: “The national government and local administrators are using taxi drivers as scapegoats for the inefficiency of other services," Nicola Di Giacobbe, national secretary for the trade union Unica Cgil, told Euronews.
Several governments over the past decades have tried reforming the sector, but the firm opposition of the taxi drivers' lobby – considered one of the most powerful and problematic in Italy, along with beach resorts’ owners – succeeded in blocking every possible change.
A widespread problem
Currently, only 4,853 taxi licences are available in Milan — the second most populous city in the country. That's the same amount as in 2003 when the last call for bids granted about 300 new permissions.
Yet since then the city’s population has swelled by about 100,000 to reach over 1.3 million and the tourism flows have also increased substantially.
“The fact that we need more taxis is crystal clear. During the busiest hours, like nights or weekends, calling a taxi can take 15 to 20 minutes, and that’s unacceptable,” Arianna Censi, Milan mobility and transports councilor, told Euronews.
This month, the city’s authorities asked the Lombardy Region to grant 1,000 new licences.
A report conducted by the municipality in 2019 – which remains the most updated one – showed that almost 30% of requests for a taxi made between 7pm and 9pm remained unanswered, while at night the amount went up to 42%.
“If you have to call a taxi several times, and wait hours for it, you’ll stop using the service,” Censi said. However, trade unions criticized the report, stating that it’s based on incomplete data and that it doesn’t take into account rides made without a call, when passengers get on board from the street or from designated parking areas. Censi agrees that the study is incomplete, but claims that many taxi associations didn’t provide the requested data.
The situation is not much different in Rome. The capital counts about 7,800 licences for nearly 2.9 million inhabitants and about 10 million foreign and domestic tourists per year. The last call for bids was in 2006.
While the amount is already insufficient, in all likelihood it won’t be able to meet the increased demand expected for the next Catholic Church Jubilee held in 2025. As such, the city is looking for ways to increase licences, but local authorities are struggling to strike a deal with trade unions.
Compared to the population, Rome has about 270 taxi licenses for 100,000 people, an amount much lower than in other European capitals: Paris, for instance, counts more than 800 licenses for 100,000 people, and Madrid about 470. Furthermore, users in many major European cities can also count on private, digital platforms like Uber or Lyft, which offer a very limited service in Italy and over the years have been targeted by several legal actions and protests.
“In Italy, Uber is not what you expect,” said Ariadna Bakhmatova-Pinnarelli, a Ukrainian woman who in 2022 moved from London to Milan to follow her Italian husband. Living in the outskirts of the city and without the possibility to drive, taxis often represent her only option to move around. However, Bakhmatova was disappointed with the service, claiming that many apps are shady about the charges and that drivers can be hard to find.
Uber started operating in Italy in 2013, and has been fighting the opposition of the drivers’ lobby ever since. At the moment, the company can only offer the “UberBlack” service, the most expensive one under which drivers must be legally recognised as chauffeurs. The “UberPop” option, which allowed everyone to drive, was banned in 2015.
In July 2022, the union IT Taxi signed a deal with Uber which allows users in dozens of cities to book rides with traditional taxis through the Uber app. However, a year later, it looks like this attempted solution was not very helpful, according to both residents and tourists.
“Getting a taxi in Lake Garda [in Northern Italy] is impossible,” Dave Johnson, a British citizen who often travels to Italy, told Euronews. Last week, after calling three different providers, he and his family had to wait an hour to get a hold of a car. “The car was nice in the end, but the ride was expensive,” he said.
His experience was not an exception, unfortunately.