by Megan Cruz
Photo by Lyndsey Matthews
Eager to leave Prague’s seedy main train station, I slid into the back seat of a Mercedes Benz station wagon taxi. As the driver locked the doors, he handed over a laminated list of the fares: 980 crowns to the Intercontinental Praha Hotel? That is the equivalent of a $50 cab ride for a distance of 2.3 miles, which should take only eight minutes. But before I could question why the ride was so expensive, he started the engine and began to blast Mariah Carey on the radio.
Tales of such exorbitant fares are common since the September 6, 2007 Municipal Court decision, which restricted City Hall from imposing a maximum fare rate—even though it is against the law to charge more than 28 crowns ($1.40) per kilometer.
As a result, city officials are more determined than ever to stand their ground.
“We are permanently in a war with the taxis,” said Rudolf Dobias, a spokesperson for Prague City Hall. “Their public robbery is completely well-known and part of our folklore.”
City Hall has appealed the court’s decision and will continue to enforce the 28-crown fare, said Prague’s deputy mayor, Marketa Reedova.
Unlike taxis in other European Union capitals—where fares are more or less consistent—Prague’s taxi drivers have gained a reputation of being untrustworthy. In the early 1990s, when Prague first became a tourist Mecca, every media outlet—from CNN to The New York Times—ran horror stories on taxi prices, including tales of “turbo” meters and electric shocks delivered to passengers who refused to pay. Those wild days are gone, but recent attempts at price regulation have failed.
In 2005, Mayor Pavel Bem realized this firsthand when he posed as an Italian tourist and was overcharged by 500 percent.
For residents of Prague, getting ripped off by cabbies is an experience usually reserved for tourists.
“I got the tourist rate, with the meter clicking away like it was on fast-forward,” said Simon Earl, a British photographer on business in Prague this past July. He too paid some $50 for a ride that took less than ten minutes. “It happens when the driver hears that you don’t know the language or the area, so they take advantage of that,” he said.
Residents know to avoid these cabs by calling ahead or sending a text message to more reliable and affordable companies like AAA Radiotaxi, Profi or City Taxi.
In an effort to help tourists, City Hall has recently designated 49 of Prague’s 121 taxi stands as “fair places.” These spots are indicated by a thumbs-up logo and are checked regularly by City Hall clerks to ensure that passengers get fair rides. Prague’s hotels and transport hubs have distributed more than 100,000 brochures in seven languages about these fair places. According to a City Hall spokesperson, the city hopes to integrate the remaining 72 stands into “fair places” by the end of this year.
In spite of the city’s determination to monitor fares, some taxi drivers are unwilling to comply with the 28-crown maximum. In an interview with The Prague Post, Rudolf Tum, a driver with AAA Radiotaxi, explained that cabbies overcharge because their monthly profit is not enough to live on. After having to pay costs such as car maintenance, gas, and insurance, he usually only takes home 5,000 crowns ($250) a month. The salary woes of cab drivers were the reason Prague’s Municipal Court ruled against the City in the first place, according to a September article in Czech Business Weekly.
Amid the confusion about whether or not taxi drivers should have the right to set their own fares, City Hall insists that cabbies must still follow the fare cap. Shima Libor, the chief of the Committee for Development and Organization of Transport for Prague’s City Hall, is convinced that city officials will not back down.
“For us, [fare regulation] must be a continuing process until we can come up with a permanent answer to control [the taxis],” said Libor. “We must do a lot of things to be better.”