Intimidation and violence lurk like a shadow in the background of an increasingly acrimonious tussle now building up between Romes city hall and its angry taxi drivers, who are up in arms over controversial council decisions to get nearly 2,300 more taxis on the roads by 2009 and to check on the minute-to-minute flow of taxis by satellite.
The first person to level the accusation of violence was Susanna Novelli in the right-wing newspaper Il Tempo, who reported that troublemakers among the drivers were trying through strong-arm methods to take over the Rome taxi service. The higher-brow Corriere della Sera quickly followed up with reports that the Rome prosecutors office (procura) was investigating some 100 rough-necks for extortion, threats and robbery, at the expense of driver-colleagues and passengers.
Andrea Burli, spokesman for Mauro Calamante, head of the city councils traffic department, said: Abuses of the system by violent and criminal elements have been going on for a some time. Thereve been physical attacks on journalists and drivers. If the procura is now after them, it would be high time
Verbal insults and threats were hurled against Calamante himself together with two of his fellow councillors, Massimiliano Valeriani and Eugenio Patan, after a stormy five-hour session in early November between the councils transport commission and taxi-drivers over the sweeping council decisions. Calamante then issued a warning: It would be better for delinquents to stay at home the next time. The taxi sector must put an end to anti-democratic methods and shouldnt let certain types speak for it. Its many, many honest members should think of internal reform.
The drivers have since agreed to come up with a new ethical code by Christmas. In essence, it will be about the standard of behaviour and obligations expected of them, explained Burli. At present, there are far too few taxis in Rome. Its behind other European cities and not catering for the jump in tourism in the city. The figures are eloquent: whereas there are 2.9 taxis for every 1,000 inhabitants in Rome, there are 5.3 in Paris, 8.3 in London and 9.6 in Barcelona.
Francesco Russo, a middle-aged driver with La Capitale, one of Romes eight radio-taxi companies, was waiting to pick up a fare outside Stazione Termini. Its a great pity for the rest of us, but there are thieves among us. Theyre the ones who rip off the tourists, the troublemakers. The thing is, the traffic police (vigili urbani) know exactly who they are but never do anything about it. And what do they do about the scum drivers at the airports and here at the station? So many come from outside Rome
Russo waved at a whole herd of white, official taxis around him. 2,300 more taxis for Rome? Far too many! Wed lose out. Wed be wasting time, waiting and waiting. Wed soon go hungry.
On 1 November the city council decided to issue 1,000 new licences for taxis in 2007, 500 more in 2008 and 800 more in 2009, which, added to the present 6,000 in circulation, would give a final total of 8,300. This is a historic choice for Rome, taken out of a sense of responsibility to strengthen the taxi service, announced the mayor Walter Veltroni.
Look, went on Russo, the problem is not the number of taxis. Its Romes traffic. Always blocked. We cant get through. Thats the whole problem. And whats the council done about it? Nothing!
It was a point made by every infuriated taxi driver Wanted in Rome spoke to. Spearheading the drivers revolt is tub-thumping Loreno Bittarelli, president of the taxi cooperative 3570 , Romes biggest grouping of some 2,700 drivers, nearly half of the total, and which last year raked in a profit of 5 million. One of its drivers was Alessandro, a skinny young partner with a little goatee beard. He exploded. It costs him [Veltroni] nothing to announce 1,000 more taxis. A stroke of the pen. He just wants to make himself look good, by creating new jobs for the city. And then who pays for the taxi? The petrol? The repairs? Him? Bah! And then what if he finds hes got too many taxis on his hands? Do you think he can rescind the new licences, just like that? The trouble for us is that Romes now mono-colour only, red! What can we do about it?
Alessandro had no time for satellite surveillance either. I think Veltroni is finally after having the council take over the radio taxi service itself. If anybody starts keeping a check on me from a satellite, Im off home tomorrow. Im an independent! This is going to be a long battle.
Were not public employees. Why should we be checked upon? exploded Romanina, a pretty stand-in driver, normally a clothes shop assistant. Cant we go to the doctor when we want? She did agree, though, that new fares decided by the council for taxis to and from the airports were quite all right. The official rates are now 40 for up to four passengers from Fiumicino to within the Aurelian Walls, and 30 from Ciampino to the city.
The trouble stretches back to July, when the new minister of development, Pierluigi Bersani, came out with a jumbo so-called liberalisation decree which, among other measures, also enabled town councils to beef up taxi fleets to meet local needs. The measure was at once greeted by the invasion of the Circo Massimo by 5,000 taxis from across the land. A compromise deal followed, but then warfare against the Rome city council started, ending in a truce on 30 August, with the council agreeing to hold back on planned new licences providing the drivers kept more taxis on the go, through extra shifts that could be worked by qualified relatives or employees, with beady satellite eyes checking on the result.
Then the deal collapsed because of a split between hard-liner taxi drivers, such as 3570, and moderates, like the Samarcanda Cooperative (which called itself Ghandian), worried about the livelihoods of 6,000 taxi families at stake. A council ultimatum said: You reach an agreement between yourselves or we start 1,000 more taxis rolling. In November the deadline ran out. That chapter is now closed, announced Calamante, meaning there was no going back for the council.
An embittered driver with Cosmo taxis recalled: We were ready to discuss anything after a six-month trial of our do-it-yourself scheme to see if we could work it. Then, arbitrarily, Veltroni decided to go it alone.
Outside Termini someone had daubed on a poster: Prodi, Bersani, hands off Romes taxis!