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Should taxi services be overhauled?


In early 2019, the strike by Madrid taxi drivers led to an incredible drop in road traffic in the Spanish capital. This phenomenon should prompt stakeholders to rethink mobility models.

What if the solution to congested city centres was simply getting rid of taxis? Eliminating them altogether is rather too radical an idea, but updating legislation on where and when they can drive seems like an essential step. This is especially true given what happened in Madrid last January, when taxi drivers went on strike for two weeks in protest against ride­hailing services. Taxis and on-demand vehicles represent two fundamentally different individual passenger transport models, in terms of price, labour law and customer experience.

11% less traffic

In particular, the Madrid taxi driver strike led to an impressive drop in traffic in the Spanish city. During the two-week protest, traffic in Madrid fell by an average of 11% compared with the same period in 2018, or 80 fewer vehicles per hour. In the very centre, which had until then been closed to non-residents but accessible for taxis, the reduction in traffic was even more apparent, with 20% fewer vehicles per hour. But what can explain this huge decrease in traffic in the Spanish capital, which has just under 15,700 licensed taxis that are not all in use on the same days, and where around a million vehicles drive on the city streets every day?

54% of taxi journeys have no passengers

In daily newspaper El País, David Lois, a researcher at the Technical University of Madrid’s Transport Research Centre, explains that “the average return trip for one person in a car is 25 kilometres. But taxis cover slightly more than 200 kilometres a day. They multiply the distance driven by an individual by ten.” Why? Because they criss-cross cities without stopping, constantly looking for potential customers. In 2017, a study by the Madrid city council’s Taxi Services Office showed that taxi drivers cover an average of 208 kilometres a day… and that 54% of this is without any passengers. These “unnecessary” trips pollute cities and contribute to congestion.

The same study revealed that 60% of taxi drivers in Madrid do not use any apps to find customers. This is a big difference to ride-hailing services which, thanks to real­time bookings, clog up roads less – although they do still drive without passengers since they don’t have any dedicated waiting areas. In addition, 44% of Madrid’s taxi drivers don’t use allocated taxi stands, which also contributes greatly to congestion.

Encouraging the use of apps to book taxis

This outdated way of operating is particularly detrimental for taxi drivers, who waste huge amounts of time roaming cities looking for passengers, wasting fuel and, as a result, money. There are several solutions to put an end to this illogical method, such as leveraging new digital tools and encouraging more widespread use of apps to book taxis. MyTaxi in Spain, for example, helps optimise users’ trips, reduce traffic and limit pollution. In France, G7, the leading taxi-booking service, developed its own app based on the model used by ride-hailing platforms. The app now accounts for 45% of the 50,000 bookings made with G7 each day in France. Apps Allocab and Tako have also set out to win over the taxi market. A shared application for all taxi services would no doubt be an ideal solution.

New York City freezes ride-hailing licences

Increasing the number of taxi stands is another option to cut down on unnecessary traffic and limit congestion and pollution. Cities could also refuse access into the very centre by taxis without passengers, letting only those with a booked journey come through. “We need to regulate the time taxis spend driving – that’s the only way to reduce congestion. And we can only do that by setting up more taxi stands and encouraging passengers to book their journeys via apps or by phone,” says David Lois.

It’s a problem for ride-hailing services, too. Authorities in New York City observed that the boom in on-demand cars was one of the main reasons for the traffic jams bringing the city to a halt ever more regularly. To ease congestion, in summer 2018, the city passed new legislation and froze the issuance of licences to new Uber and Lyft drivers, with a view to promoting multimodal mobility.

If nothing else, the Madrid taxi drivers’ strike made one thing plain: 60% more people used public transport during that fortnight, radically bringing down the city’s car traffic.

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