Popular wisdom has it that taxi drivers in Rome are dubious, unreliable characters with an eye for quick money. The service has never been popular with residents or tourists of the eternal city, who claim that drivers overcharge, cheat on the meter and often dont know how to get to their destination without asking the passenger or consulting a city map.

In their defence the taxi drivers point an accusing finger at the abusivi (illegal taxi drivers) who prey on unsuspecting foreign tourists, especially at the airports, charging them exorbitant rates.

According to official figures, there are 5,823 licensed taxis in Rome (one for every 500 inhabitants), compared with about 14,000 taxis in Paris (1 per 200 inhabitants) and 20,000 in London (1 per 350 inhabitants). The majority of licence holders belong to seven radio call companies.

The city council receives an average of 3,500 licence applications every year but new ones were last issued in 1992. New entrants therefore can get a licence only if they buy one from a taxi driver who is giving up the job. Most of the time the permits are handed down within the family, so that even today taxi-driving is very much a family business.

Only a couple of decades ago many of Romes taxi drivers came from a small village in the Abruzzo, Cappadocia; each summer there was an exodus along the road to LAquila of the yellow-orange taxis, on their way home for the holidays, piled high with family and luggage.

One of the early signs of change in the industry came when the yellow cabs disappeared, to be replaced by the standard white on the streets today, a much more practical colour when it comes to selling the vehicle and buying a new one.

This seemingly quiet sector experienced its first major shake-up with reforms in November 1998 that allowed new entrants to run taxi-buses and shuttle services to the airports. But the reforms were so unpopular that about 10,000 Italian taxi owners converged on Rome for a 10-day strike to protest against the introduction of competition into what was traditionally a job that was handed down from generation to generation.

The city authorities weathered the storm and on 1 January 1999 Rome became the first Italian city with a diversified taxi service. During the millennium celebrations, taxi-buses were used to transport groups of people on specific routes decided by the city council. But they were never very popular and have now almost ceased to exist.

According to Ivan Muccini, the president of Mondo Taxi 8822 co-operative, the industry has become tougher. Muccini, who has been driving a taxi for over 30 years, says the good old days were more lucrative and that it is now difficult to make a profit. Today, taxis have to offer their clients a much better service. Muccini explains that his co-operative now has a disciplinary committee that handles customer complaints. The punishments range from one day without radio communication for cases of dishonesty, to a total ban from the co-operative in cases of gross misconduct. Muccini is quick to add that they receive an average of only seven complaints a month. Rarely do the drivers have such big problems that they require referral to outside authorities. However, the citys mobility office does have a special department that deals with major complaints both from clients and drivers if necessary.

Going on vacation has also become tricky for drivers as a result of the increase in tourists visiting Rome during the summer. The city council now makes taxi drivers stagger their holidays from 27 July to 5 October, making sure that there is never more than a 40 per cent decrease in service during the peak holiday period from 7-25 August.

The biggest challenge to the industry these days is finding customers. According to Muccini it is not unusual to wait on the ranks for an hour only to get a client for a 10 journey. On average a taxi drivers income is 100 a day gross. However there are daily expenses; between 40-50 for petrol, and a tax by the city, a form of fuel levy that works out to be around 4 each day. On top of this, members of the seven main taxi companies contribute ten per cent of their income towards their company-run pension fund. In the end, most drivers are in agreement that take-home pay is about 1,000 per month.

A typical day shift is between seven to eight hours but the night shift is nine hours. The times are from 07.00-14.30, 14.30-22.00, 17.00-01.00, 22.00-07.00. A special wing of the municipal police (gruppo intervento traffico) ensures that drivers stick to their shifts.

So has Muccini of Mondo Taxi faced any bad experiences? He recalls only a few instances of drunken youths who were rude to him. On the contrary, he has had many good experiences and remembers once when he had a parliamentarian as a client for a journey that would normally have taken ten minutes, but ended up taking an hour because of the traffic. It was an opportunity, he says, to get first-hand information about the dynamics of Italian politics.

When asked whether the councils reluctance to issue more taxi licences means that there is a virtual closed-shop in the sector, Gianfranco Malato, the public relations manager of Mondo Taxi, says that there is plenty of competition among the seven radio companies and that illegal operators also make business tough.

Muccini believes that taxis are always trying to improve their service. For example, the company occasionally offers refresher courses and workshops on customer relations, and it encourages drivers to take foreign language classes to improve their service.

As for advice for those wishing to join the industry, Malato says, It is a good life but you ought to be very disciplined and patient in order to make it. Getting the driving licence, a public service certificate, a taxi-operating licence and a well-maintained white car are a true test of ones patience.