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Making Taxis Easier to Access in Italy: A Difficult Challenge

This summer, countless tourists, as well as residents of many top Italian destinations, found themselves in the fruitless pursuit of elusive game: a taxi.

In Italy, where ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft and Bolt have been met with strong resistance and are heavily restricted, social media sites channeled tirades describing hourslong taxi lines at train stations and airports. Callers to taxi dispatch numbers were put on hold for interminable waits. And regular taxi apps failed to find cars.

Returning to Rome from Naples one Monday afternoon in June, a train trip that takes just over an hour, Daniele Renzoni said that he and his wife waited for more than an hour and a half at Termini station for a cab under a blazing sun.

“Just image a long line of grumbling, frustrated people, complaining, cursing. Hot day, angry tourists, there’s not much else to say,” said Mr. Renzoni, who is retired. “Taxi drivers will tell you there’s too much traffic, too many requests, too much everything, but the fact is, the customer pays.”

The situation is “a disgrace to Italy,” said Furio Truzzi, president of the consumer rights group Assoutenti, one of several associations that protested the shortage.

Things got so bad that earlier this week the government intervened, introducing measures that would simplify procedures so that cities can issue new taxi licenses, including temporary ones to cover peak periods like the summer or major events like the Catholic Church’s Jubilee in 2025 and the Winter Olympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in 2026.

Major cities and those with international airports, like Rome, Milan and Naples, where the taxi crunch has been felt most keenly, will also be able to increase the number of licenses by 20 percent, though owners of the new permits must use electric or hybrid cars.

In Rome, for example, there are now about 7,800 taxis, and if 20 percent more licenses were issued, there would be about 1,500 more.

Parliament now has two months to convert the decree into law.

But transportation experts said the decree falls far short of what they say is a needed overhaul of the industry, which holds outsized sway over local — and national — politics. Thanks to the taxi lobby, ride-sharing services are almost nonexistent in Italy, where Uber is the only platform in use, with many restrictions.

The government lost an opportunity for real change, said Andrea Giuricin, a transportation economist at a research center at the University of Milan Bicocca. He said the best way to meet consumer needs would be to increase the number of licenses for Italy’s chauffeur services, known as N.C.C., which work with Uber.

“It’s very difficult in Italy” because “there isn’t a culture of liberalization in general,” creating little opportunity for competition, said Professor Giuricin. Taxis “are a small but powerful lobby” that easily influences politics, “which is very weak” in Italy, he said.

Angela Stefania Bergantino, a professor of transportation economics at the University of Bari, pointed out that previous governments had tried to open up the taxi market. But they failed.

“The problem is that taxis are regulated by municipal governments, which can find themselves captive in the sense that it is difficult for City Hall to implement policies that the cab lobby doesn’t like,” she said. “These are lobbies that have effective strike tools,” like wildcat strikes or traffic blockages that can paralyze entire cities, she said.

Industry officials were dismissive of the new decree. “Much ado about nothing,” said Andrea Laguardia, director of Legacoop Produzione e Servizi, an association of taxi cooperatives. “The government presented these measures as crucial to resolving the taxi shortage,” he said, but city governments, which issue taxi licenses, could already issue more if warranted. The measures don’t “resolve the problem of urban mobility,” Mr. Laguardia said.

According to a 2022 report by Italy’s transportation authority, Italy has roughly one taxi for every 2,000 people, fewer than other European countries like France or Spain.

Italy’s competition watchdog said this month that it was also examining the industry.

Representatives of drivers for chauffeur services, who have much to gain from any liberalization of the market, say they are being held hostage by the taxi lobby, even as the world becomes digital and a rebound in tourism increases demand.

“We are losing out on rides because we can’t increase the number of cars on the road,” said Luigi Pacilli, the president of Federnoleggio, a group representing some N.C.C. drivers.

“It’s a complete bluff,” he said of the new measures, which allow, but do not mandate, new licenses. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni could shake things up, he said, “but I don’t know if she’ll have the will or desire to fight one of the strongest lobbies in Europe.”

Taxi drivers say they are taking the hit for a plethora of problems: traffic in cities that slows cars to a snail’s pace, the surge in tourism after the pandemic’s peak and inefficient public transportation.

“Let’s make local public transportation work well and then we can decide if more licenses are necessary,” said Loreno Bittarelli, the president of one of Italy’s largest taxi dispatch consortiums.

The drivers say that critical shortages last only last a few months each year, and that demand slows to a standstill in winter. Adding new licenses would only stretch the winter fasting among more drivers.

Above all, though licenses are issued by the city, they can then be sold by the drivers, for sums that can reach 250,000 euros, or about $276,000, depending on the city — a retirement nest egg for many. With an influx of new licenses, the value of an existing license would depreciate.

City administrators fear cabbies could revolt and strike if the status quo changes. “If I decide to issue new licenses,” said Eugenio Patanè, Rome’s city councilor in charge of transportation, “I’m going to find 1,000 taxis blocking traffic in Piazza Venezia,” the downtown Rome square that taxi drivers habitually clog while protesting.

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