VIENNA — In “The Third Man”, the 1949 film classic, a taxi hurtles hero Holly Martins through the bombed-out streets of Vienna, the surly driver screeching around corners with no regard for his passenger.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the World War II bomb damage may be gone from the Austrian capital, but things haven’t improved a great deal for the average taxi passenger.
This at least is the conclusion of two recent studies, prompting authorities to try a novel tactic: hiring private detectives to spy on cab drivers.
In one survey of taxis in 22 European cities by Germany’s ADAC automobile club — won by Barcelona, Spain — Vienna got a big thumbs-down, ranking fifth from the bottom.
Two of the 10 drivers tested by ADAC zoomed through red lights and chatted on mobile phones while driving, one of them at high speed on the motorway, while another almost collided with a bus after not bothering to indicate.
And worst of all for a city trying to attract more tourists and trade fairs, eight drivers said they were unable to think of a single sight worth seeing, while seven declined to impart a single restaurant tip when asked.
The second test, commissioned by Vienna’s tourist board, was more extensive, comprising 133 taxi journeys and ranking them on the basis of everything from speed to service to smelliness. The results were no better.
Almost a quarter of the journeys were below par. Some 22 percent of taxis were dirty and messy inside, 17 percent smelt bad, 58 percent had no air conditioning — it was summer — and 32 percent didn’t take credit cards.
Twelve percent of drivers practiced poor hygiene, nine percent drove with little regard for their passengers, 10 percent broke traffic rules and 12 percent either didn’t know where the destination was or drove there the wrong way.
Almost half of drivers spoke “insufficient” English, the tourist board said, meaning that they were unable to understand basic directions or where a passenger wanted to go.
“‘Insufficient’ doesn’t mean being unable to have a conversation in English. We are not expecting that from Viennese taxi drivers,” said Norbert Kettner, the head of the city’s tourist board.
Now the city is taking action, but since it doesn’t think much of the amateurish “mystery shopper” way these two tests were done, it wants to hire real detectives.
“These are people with a proper licence to be a professional detective,” said Andreas Curda, the head of the transport division of Vienna’s chamber of commerce.
“We want to identify the wrongdoers, prosecute them and if necessary take them off the road.”
But he rejects the idea that taxi drivers need to speak good English.
“In Austria the language spoken is German. The problem is that there are also lots of tourists who speak other languages, French or Italians for example, and lots of taxi drivers have an immigration background who speak other languages.
“If you go to Paris, for example, I’ve been there myself, taxi drivers aren’t going to speak English either.”
Vienna’s taxi drivers, meanwhile, admit that there are a few bad apples.
“I heard about someone driving a lady from the Westbahnhof station to the Etap hotel in the third district,” a distance of some seven kilometres (4.3 miles), said one driver, wishing to remain anonymous.
“He charged her 70 euros ($95). He was driving all over Vienna. That doesn’t give taxi drivers a very good reputation.”
But they insist they are generally an honest bunch trying to eke out a living from a very boring — two-thirds of their working hours are spent waiting — and sometimes dangerous occupation, where competition is tough.
Since the metro started running nights on weekends in September 2010, Vienna’s roughly 4,500 registered taxis have had to fight over 10 percent fewer customers. The city estimates there are 1,000 taxis too many.
Being spied on is just another reason to be demotivated, they say.
“Being a taxi driver is a very bad job,” another driver, originally from Turkey, said, saying he earns about 1,000-1,500 euros a month, net, working 10-12 hours a day, five days a week.
“Thank God my wife works. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to make it.”