Taxis 's they're an integral part of the Baltic urban landscape, they can shape a city's image, and they provide a vital way of getting from here to there. And even if you usually drive, bike or bus around town, chances are they factor into your transportation routine in some way. In this installment of Industry Insider, The Baltic Times takes a look at the taxi industry, how it works and how it's developing from its shady, 1990s past into a well-regulated industry. We also examine where it is failing to do so, and what roadblocks are faced by those who are trying to make Baltic taxi businesses resemble those of more developed nations.
TALLINN - The taxi business is in the middle of a major overhaul of operation and reputation in the Baltics.
Once the domain of private operators and a regular source of complaints, taxis are now more likely to be owned by large companies and offer a reputable service.
Tallinn, in particular, has led a major campaign to clean up the taxi business and weed out cheats.
The price variety across the market remains wide-ranging, with a huge difference between the cheapest and most expensive cab at a rank. Locals and visitors alike still find it difficult to estimate the average cost of a fare.
According to the Tallinn Taxi Association, there are more than 1,700 taxis on the road in the Estonian capital, manned by some 2,200 drivers. There are no caps placed on the number of taxi licenses handed out by the city administration. While customers sometimes find it difficult to book a taxi during busy periods, on the whole the demand seems to be adequately serviced.
Only 500 private drivers run owner-operated cars in Tallinn. The remaining 1,200 cars belong to nearly 30 companies that operate radio call centers.
Toomas Noulik, spokesman for the TTA, said the industry had become more stable and trustworthy as companies expanded their reach. He said companies have a better opportunity to discipline drivers, and to blacklist those who failed to comply with regulations.
"If a company takes a driver, he becomes more accountable. All the companies know about a driver if he does something wrong," Noulik said.
But he expressed concern about the licensing system, which allows anyone with a driver's permit to become a taxi driver after undertaking a 72-hour course.
"I think today the taxi system needs to be stronger. It's too easy to go to school for 72 hours and that's all. Companies in this business need to show very strong discipline," he said.
Tallinn City Council has spent the past twelve months improving its taxi regulations. Since July last year, taxis have been required to clearly display their prices in both Estonian and English. A complaints hotline was also established to allow customers to voice their concerns.
Margus Kehe, head of the council's taxi division, said the hotline has been a huge success.
"The passengers call us more often. They ask us questions about what prices are normal, and they make complaints," he said.
Based on complaints, the council can call drivers to a commission, which has the power to fine them or strip them of their license. In the past six months, more than 150 drivers have been disciplined, and 10 of them have lost their licenses.
Answering questions about prices can be difficult in Tallinn, where the base fare can range between 35 kroons for the cheapest cab and 250 kroons for the most expensive. Tourists are also given a poor indication of prices at locations such as the ports and hotels, which grant exclusive parking contracts to expensive taxis.
Kehe said people are advised to check the fare on the window, and to use a different company if they are unhappy with the price. He said some tourists saved a large amount of money by calling the hotline to check Estonia's currency system.
"They called from the airport to ask if Estonia was using the euro yet. Apparently, the driver had told them that the prices were listed in euros, not kroons," he said.
Complaints have also led to the identification of about 70 pirate taxis that are operating without any authorization. Kehe said pirate cabs can be hard to recognize because they often carry identical signage to licensed cars. About ten drivers remain on the road in pirate taxis, despite being fined repeatedly.
Taxi inspectors have carried out 400 random checks in the past six months. "We look at the taxi meter to see if it is running correctly, that it doesn't have a switch that makes it more expensive," Kehe said.
Inspectors have also followed in the footsteps of former Tallinn Mayor Juri Ratas, who once famously posed as an Italian tourist to catch out profiteering taxi drivers. Kehe said undercover checks are carried out, but not quite in the same style. "We don't pretend to be Italian, just normal people," he said.
Company-run taxis - 1,200
Private owner-drivers - 500
Registered drivers - 2,200
Companies - 30
Average fares (lowest to highest)
Starting price - 35 - 50 kroons (2.23 - 3.19 euros)
Price per kilometer - 7 - 12 kroons (0.44 - 0.77 euros)
Company-run taxis - 1,800
Private owner-drivers - 4 (official figure)
Companies - 76
Average fares (Maximums set by city government)
Starting price - 1 - 1.50 lats (1.42 - 2.13 euros)
Price per kilometer - 0.40 - 0.50 lats (0.56 - 0.71 euros)
Price per kilometer - 1.5 - 3 litas (0.43 - 0.86 euros)
Companies - 50