Prague City Hall and taxi drivers waging war over prices

Ask any tourist about his impressions of Prague and you will get answers like beautiful architecture, beautiful women, great beer, and...expensive taxis. City Hall has been fighting a seemingly endless battle to stop taxi drivers from overcharging. But now the dispute between the drivers and the authorities has reached an entirely new level and one man has even ended up in hospital.

City Hall regulations are clear. Taxi drivers can charge as much as they like as long as it does not exceed 28 crowns per kilometre. But drivers in the lucrative tourist areas are clearly defying those rules. Many of them charge up to 99 crowns/km, saying the authorities have no right to tell them how to do business.

One driver, Zdenek Ponert, broke regulations 33 times and was fined a total of 90,000 crowns. He eventually lost his licence and took to drastic measures to protest - a hunger strike. Eleven days after drinking only hot tea with milk and honey, he was rushed to hospital with stomach cramps. But Zdenek Ponert had no other choice, his colleagues say. Expenses are too high and simply cannot be covered if the City Hall regulations were observed. Since no one is listening, only such a serious form of protest attracts attention.

Vladimir Kuna is based on Prague's Old Town Square and says according to his calculations he should be allowed to charge at least 45-50 crowns/km:

Photo: CTK
"City Hall based its calculations on the car Skoda Octavia 1.9. But when someone needs five litres of oil for the Skoda Octavia, I need nine litres for my car. So he pays 1,000 crowns while I pay twice as much. But that's not all. Almost all taxi ranks here in Prague have someone who controls them. So, I take someone to the airport, for example, but cannot pick anyone up on the way back. Also, in the calculations that we were given, the average speed calculated during the day is over 50 km/hr and over 90 km/hr at night. This is the data according to which they calculate the prices."

It is hard to tell who is in the right. The taxi drivers argue that those who do not overcharge are breaking other rules - for example by driving more hours per week than permitted. But few people are showing empathy, including this tourist who has fought one too many battles with overcharging taxi drivers:

"The meter was going up so fast that my head was turning. I asked him, and suddenly he started pretending that he doesn't speak English and said 'I don't know it's just different company, different policy'. So I said 'okay, I don't like it so I'm going to get off here'. And he said 'no, no, much will you pay' and I said 'I paid more or less 200 crowns to get to the other place, so I will give you 220'. And he said 'ok, you're a good business man'. If I hadn't known about this and if I hadn't mentioned this meter, he would have charged me around 600 crowns or so, which wouldn't be such a good experience for a tourist. When we come here, of course we spend money but we don't want to get ripped off - that's another story!"

City Hall is staying firm. No matter how many more drivers go on hunger strike, it will not change its regulations, it says, adding that if taxi drivers feel they are in the right they should take up their case in the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. According to Vladimir Kuna, Prague's taxi drivers are so upset that they most likely will.