Ridha, 31, closed the door and restarted the engine of his taxi. As we merged back into the stream of vehicles in the Ain Zaghouan neighborhood of Tunis, our dot began to move along the red line that cut across the cellphone he had propped up against the dashboard. Behind us, stretched across the doors of one of the buildings that face the N9 highway, a mint green decal read: “Bolt.”
Since arriving in Tunis and Sousse in 2019, Estonian ridesourcing company Bolt has gained a growing corps of taxi drivers and passengers. It has steadily becoming a fixture in the Tunis transportation ecosystem, with its logo emblazoned on the sides of passing taxis.
Although he had just stopped to drop off 15 percent of his earnings at the company headquarters, Ridha said he liked the Bolt system, which combines mapping technology with targeted financial incentives. “I’ve got no problem with them at all,” replied Ridha when I asked what he thought about the company.
Across Africa and beyond, Bolt and other similar companies have rushed to enter cities and become dominant players in their transportation sectors. The technological and economic models introduced by these companies have restructured transportation and delivery in the urban areas of rich and poor countries alike. Although the services provided by such companies are much the same everywhere, institutional differences at national and local levels have made for diverse responses from drivers, commuters, and governments.
In Tunis, Bolt’s technology has noticeably shortened wait time, increased driver earnings, and—with customer ratings holding drivers to account—improved reliability. But middle- and lower-income taxi passengers who cannot afford the fare increases have started to find themselves waiting longer times for normal taxis or have been pushed to use cheaper modes of transportation.
Growing use of the application by drivers and passengers has also allowed the company to dictate its own system of financial incentives within the broader taxi sector. While the Ministry of Transportation has previously been responsible for balancing the financial interests of both drivers and commuters, Bolt has begun to displace the State as the price-broker between the two groups.
In its reporting, Meshkal has found that Bolt has contributed to further concentrating the problems of transportation among lower-income passengers.
International Trend, Local Specificities
“Bolt is a technology company providing solutions to those who work in and make use of transport,” said Jihed Nefzi, Sales and Business Director at Bolt Tunisia. Despite the changes that the ridesourcing app has brought to the Tunis transportation sector, Nefzi insists that Bolt does not consider itself a transportation company.
Ridesourcing companies around the world, including Uber and Lyft, are often careful not to label themselves as transportation companies, in order to avoid having to comply with transportation laws and regulations. Like other similar companies, Bolt calls the drivers who use their application “partners,” which serves to avoid the added responsibilities the company would have towards the legal rights of drivers if they were designated as “employees.” For now, the only contracted employees in Bolt’s Tunisia branch are those working behind desks and computers at the office headquarters in Ain Zaghouan, Nefzi explained.
At the international level, the ambiguous status of ridesourcing companies has created disruption in the transportation sector, most notably in the case of Uber, which does not operate in Tunisia. Independent drivers—“partners”—who deem themselves to be essential to the functioning of the ridesourcing application’s services, have at times demanded legal recognition as workers with contracts and benefits.
Ridesourcing companies have introduced further contention in transportation sectors around the world, often coming into conflict with taxi drivers who find that the increase in competition from independent drivers using the ridesourcing application cuts into their income and jeopardizes the investments they have made to acquire their licenses.
These two problems are largely avoided in Tunisia because of Law 33/2004 regulating the land transportation sector, which guarantees taxi drivers with the exclusive right to provide individual car rides to passengers in exchange for payment. As a result, Bolt and other applications can only recruit registered taxi drivers to their platforms. This means that Bolt hasn’t created a class of private drivers who might compete with taxi drivers.
For now, Bolt drivers in Tunis haven’t been calling on Bolt to bring them on as full-time employees either, in part because they already have other institutional affiliations. As taxi drivers, they are already licensed with one of the four governorates of the greater Tunis metropolitan area and many are members of one of three taxi unions. Most importantly, potential grievances against Bolt on the part of Tunisian taxi drivers are further mitigated by the fact that the company’s technological services have so far increased drivers’ incomes.
Rather than competing with the taxi sector, as has often been the case elsewhere, in Tunisia, Bolt and other cab-hailing applications have instead introduced privately-owned technological services within the sector.
Because of the popularity of its services and the increased income it has brought drivers, Bolt presents a unique problem for taxi unions. The company has brought tangible economic benefits to union constituents, but it has also emerged as an important new player in taxi politics. Initial expectations of conflict between the company and unions have not panned out to a significant degree, in large part because Bolt has had to conform to the legal framework that establishes protections for drivers and is supported by unions.
“Our non-negotiable position is that any [smart phone] application, whatever it may be, must work exclusively with taxis,” said Nacer Lahlaoui, Vice President of the Chamber of Individual Taxis for the governorate of Tunis, which is affiliated with the main employers’ union, UTICA. This demand is currently enshrined in Tunisian Law 33/2004, and is respected by Bolt.
Bolt from the Driver’s Seat
Taxi drivers Ahmed Chaaban, 57, and Kaïs Mohammed Saleh, 31, independently described the Bolt system as it applies to drivers, which functions through a combination of precise financial incentives and location tracking technology.
When it arrived in 2019, Bolt was actively recruited taxi drivers, they said. Although the company requires initial training that costs drivers 40 dinars, at the time the company provided a prepaid SIM card and 30 dinars per month for gas expenses.
But in the years since, the company has grown and continued to attract new drivers while dropping these early incentives. Bolt currently takes a 15 percent cut from each ride; for comparison, Yassir, an Algerian ridesourcing company active in Tunis, takes 10 percent. With Bolt, drivers may earn up to 150 dinars in fares before dropping off the company’s cut at headquarters in Ain Zaghouan. If they don’t drop off the company’s share after reaching this sum, they are blocked from using the application until they make the deposit. The upper limit allowed by Yassir, on the other hand, is only 50 dinars.
Despite the company’s cut, taxi drivers say they still earn more overall by using Bolt, since the company charges passengers much more than the usual taxi fare.
“When Bolt came and these applications came, they took advantage of the bad economic situation of drivers. When Bolt opened, all the taxi drivers went to it, because Bolt charges an increase in price to the client,” said driver Chaaban. According to Nefzi, of Bolt, a taxi ordered through Bolt is “at the very least three dinars higher than a regular taxi,” though it can often be even higher, since it also fluctuates according to supply and demand.
The driver version of the Bolt app can only be downloaded with a confirmation number once the driver has registered with the company. It displays a Google Maps generated map of Tunis, divided by the application into hexagonal zones which deepen in color proportionally to customer demand. The darker the zone, the higher the price that the algorithm charges the passenger. That way, drivers have and incentive to gather in these zones, where they can benefit from a relative increase in payment.
Ridha, the taxi driver and Bolt “partner,” explained that, in general, the map shows that “there is little work with Bolt in working-class neighborhoods. Work is mostly in downtown or wealthy neighborhoods like Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa, Gammarth, and Lac. Sometimes, there is heavy demand outside of shopping centers.”
Asked about “surge pricing”—when prices increase suddenly due to temporarily higher demand—Saleh confirmed that drivers “benefit from the momentary increase in price due to rainy weather and traffic.” Drivers interviewed for this article said that, compared to other applications active in Tunis, the Bolt application has a cleaner interface and pins passenger pickup location more accurately on its map.
To get drivers to provide consistent service to passengers, the Bolt system strategically incentivizes and penalizes drivers by either revealing or withholding information it gathers through the app. For instance, the application only informs the driver of a passenger’s destination once the driver has accepted the request, and it only provides the driver with trip’s price after they have dropped off the passenger. These measures are meant to limit drivers from canceling a ride on the basis of location or price. Yassir, on the other hand, gives the driver information about both the destination and fare at the moment the driver and passenger are first matched.
The application rates drivers according to two metrics: a client rating out of five stars, and an overall company rating out of 100, which combines the client rating with other elements determined by the company. According to drivers, refusing a client via the app is what hurts their overall score the most. Passengers, on the other hand, Chaaban explained, can effectively cancel with impunity: “The bad thing [about Bolt] is that you can go to a client and he’s not there. He’s cancelled you.”
A low enough overall score and the Bolt app will bump a driver down the list of available drivers, which means they have to wait longer to be matched with a client. The most extreme penalty for a low rating is for a driver to be kicked off the platform.
“What did the taxi driver get out of Bolt? He gained the possibility of taking a break in a café or anywhere else, opening Bolt, and going straight to a client. As a result, he wastes less gas. That’s the good thing,” explained Chaaban.
Bolt is one of around a dozen ridesourcing applications—including Algerian Yassir, American-based InDriver, and several much smaller ones—that have appeared in Tunisia in recent years. These apps, alongside temporary lodging platform Airbnb, are part of a broader phenomenon, dubbed the “sharing economy,” which began to emerge internationally in the late 2000s. With the rapid transfer of information made possible by the internet, companies active in the sharing economy use their online platforms to negotiate the exchange of temporary services for payment. Although these platforms have often shaken up the various economic sectors they are applied to, the overall positive or negative effect of the changes they introduce is a matter of ongoing debate.
In Tunis, where passengers often experience long wait times, the quick pairing of client and driver is the clearest advantage that ridesourcing applications provide. Despite the increase in price, Ola Aboutaleb, 29, uses the application almost exclusively to commute to work and get around the city.
“It’s like you buy time. Otherwise you lose your day,” Aboutaleb said about Bolt.
Taxi driver Kais Mohamed Saleh has also felt the positive effects of speedy paring provided by Bolt’s technology. Beyond receiving higher fares for every ride, he now also picks up more clients than he used to.
“Before Bolt, I would have around 20 rides a day,” explained Saleh. During the same amount of work time, “with Bolt, the number has gone up to 26 or 27.”
Ridesourcing apps like Bolt increase the number of rides that each driver can give on any given work day because they reduce the time that drivers and passengers spend looking for each other. Because drivers using apps spend more time driving passengers and less time looking for them, economists suggest that they may be creating greater efficiency in taxi sectors.
“Platforms—and especially place-based platforms that deliver their services on the spot—are definitely helping to broker work tasks to contracted labor,” said Tina Zintl, Senior Researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability, and specialist on the economic effects of ridesourcing app Careem in Jordan. “They do the matchmaking between clients and workers much more efficiently than anything else.”
Apps like Bolt generally pair passengers (“clients”) and drivers (“workers”) more quickly than the usual strategy of roadside hailing, for instance.
Not all applications are equally efficient, however. An app that has many users can match parties more quickly than a less popular one.
“The more people [that] are registered on a specific platform, the more benefit it brings not only to their customers, but also to the contracted labor registered on them,” Zintl explained.
As a result, early success by a company like Bolt can fuel continued success. An increase in the number of drivers and passengers using an application leads to quicker pairing on the platform, which, in turn, may encourage—or oblige—more new drivers and passengers to use the app.
For example, although taxi driver Ahmed Chaaban, 57, prefers Yassir to Bolt because it takes a smaller cut from his income, he finds that he cannot abandon the latter completely.
“The vast majority of my requests come from Bolt, because it is more popular among passengers,” explains Chaaban. For drivers Saleh and Ridha both, the larger number of passenger requests alone makes Bolt the better option.
This snowball effect can lead a single application to dominate, with research suggesting that the ridesourcing economy may tend towards monopolistic activity.
For the moment, the precise share of the taxi sector that uses Bolt is unclear. According to Lahlaoui, of the Chamber of Individual Taxis, there are approximately 17,000 taxis across the four governorates of Tunis, Ben Arous, Ariana and Manouba, confirming recent numbers reported by Nawaat; Nefzi, of Bolt, declined to say how many taxis currently use the company’s application, citing it as internal information. He nevertheless said that Bolt is the most widely-used ridesourcing company among passengers and drivers in Tunis.
Nefzi claims that Bolt dominates the Tunisian ridesourcing economy because “it is the only application that works in a systematic manner. The company has a clear project that other companies don’t have.”
“Before Bolt there were big problems with transport, especially between individual taxis and citizens,” Nefzi explained. “Before, taxis would say to you, ‘I’m not going where you’re going.’ It’s hard to sit in one place for half an hour and not find a taxi. Bolt has provided solutions to that.”
“Taxi drivers come to Bolt to ask to use it. It has a high degree of credibility, among passengers as well,” Nefzi claimed, adding that “both passengers and drivers win.”
Despite Bolt’s popularity, public institutions responsible for the taxi sector have not entirely embraced the company.
Ridha, who has been driving with Bolt for two years, said he enjoys the regularity of the work and the added income it provides. Still, he cited instances where Bolt has brought him problems with authorities.
“According to the traffic police, Bolt is an unrecognized company. The police will occasionally stop you when you’re using it,” Ridha said
According to Tunisian law, taxi prices are determined by a rate set by the Ministry of Transportation. Digital meters inside every taxi follow that price rate. But because Bolt sets its own prices, traffic police have directives to stop users, said Ridha. Even if they aren’t using the meter “drivers still have to turn it on when they are with a Bolt client,” he explained. If they are stopped by the traffic police, they can point to the meter and claim that they were operating without Bolt. As for the open smartphone: “You can say you were using the GPS.”
Still, because of the risks, Ridha avoids using Bolt in certain parts of the city.
“You have to watch out when you’re driving downtown, where there are many police,” he said. As a result of police stops, there is a widespread perception among taxi drivers, including those who both do and do not use Bolt, that the app is illegal.
Nizar Ben Mohamed, Director of Land Transportation at the Ministry of Transportation commented explicitly on the matter in a recent interview on Mosaïque FM, as reported in Business News, stating: “There is currently a fare for taxi transportation which was put in place by the ministry in 2019. Any driver or company that does not respect this fare is breaking the law and may be subject to fines.”
However, despite this declaration, Nefzi of Bolt claimed that the company’s pricing is legal. According to him, the price that Bolt charges is calculated by adding the official meter price with the price of the pairing services made possible by the company’s technology.
“Bolt headquarters in Ain Zaghouan are in plain sight. If it were illegal authorities would have closed it down by now,” said Nefzi.
Nefzi said that suspicion about the app’s legality is due to the uniqueness of the service Bolt provides and the ambiguity over which ministry is responsible for overseeing the company’s activities.
“The different ministries have different approaches toward Bolt. Because they don’t necessarily communicate, they often contradict one another,” he explained. “Bolt is first and foremost in contact with the Ministry of Technology and Communication. It is also in contact with the ministries of the Interior and of Transportation, but these more secondarily. We are an application, after all,” said Nefzi, reiterating the company’s self-branding as a technology company—and not a transportation company.
Confusion regarding Bolt’s legal status in Tunisia may also be due to the disruption it has caused in a sector that has seen little technological change since its inception. Lahlaoui, of the Chamber of Individual Taxis, explained that “the problem is that the taxi economy operates under laws written in the mid- 1950s.”
“The ambiguity of Bolt’s status is a result of outdated laws and a lack of coordination between ministries,” he said, echoing Nefzi’s position.
Riding Shotgun: The Passenger Experience
The speedy pairing algorithm, the incentive system it applies to drivers, and the rating system it provides passengers with have all created an improved taxi service for those can afford to move around Tunis with the Bolt application. But for taxi passengers who cannot afford it, the company is the cause of further transportation-related headaches.
Aboutaleb, the regular Bolt user, says that in her student days, she preferred using the metro and bus to taxis. On those occasions when she did use taxis, it was often through the call-in taxi service, AlloTaxi, since with roadside hailing she would often encounter problems. “It’s always that they’re going in the opposite direction,” she recalled.
“Payment was a huge problem, especially if I didn’t have change. That would trigger a fight. Also, some of the drivers would go through long routes to increase the ride fare,” said Aboutaleb. She said Bolt has removed the stress from her taxi rides.
“With Bolt, I feel more secure because drivers behave well. I track my route and I know how much my ride costs in advance,” she added.
With Bolt, she finds she no longer has to walk to roundabouts or other strategic spots to find a taxi.
“Generally, I stay in my exact location. However, sometimes drivers ask me to come nearer to avoid police officers, especially at Avenue Habib Bourguiba,” she said.
For Aboutaleb, Bolt solves problems that come with her daily commute.
“If I want to use a non-Bolt taxi to go to work in the morning, I have to leave home earlier, at around 5 or 6 a.m. Later on, no taxi will be available. Or they refuse to drive me downtown because of traffic,” she said.
Ali Sharif, 31, uses regular taxis when they are available. But he finds that most of the time he uses Bolt. For him, the usual added price is worth the improved service.
“I disliked this city before Bolt,” said Sharif, who moved to Tunis from Libya in 2014. “The waiting was a nightmare for me. It was too much.”
Sharif finds Bolt has facilitated several kinds of rides: commuting to work, longer rides that might take drivers out of their usual zones of activity, and shorter rides that would otherwise not provide enough financial incentive to drivers.
Sharif also uses Bolt “to avoid airport taxis and the hustle of negotiating.” Rides from Tunis Carthage Airport represent a notable exception to the trend of Bolt taxis charging higher prices than normal taxis. Regular taxis waiting at the airport charge more than the meter price; but Bolt has since broken into the captive market there, bringing down prices to that of a typical Bolt ride. The company specifically advertises airport trips on its website.
Overall, the Bolt system seems to have created more reliable service for clients making the shift from regular taxis. However, this regular service has come with a fluctuating fee. Although they appreciate the quick matching with drivers, Sharif and Aboutaleb complained about Bolt’s surge pricing, where prices increase more or less instantaneously to match increases in demand, similarly to an auction.
“Ramadan this year was crazy,” explained Aboutaleb. “The costs were super high. A normal taxi from my work downtown to where I live should cost around 3.5 to 4 dinars. It cost me around 18 dinars, which is as if I ordered a ride to [distant] La Marsa.”
“Sometimes when I order a Bolt, at first, I get a more or less reasonable cost estimate, but then the price increases once I reach my destination,” said Aboutaleb.
Tunisian Watchdog organization IWatch recently filed a lawsuit against Bolt on the basis of advertising false prices, as reported in Nawaat.
Despite the high prices, at times there are no other alternatives.
“Sometimes I find it incredibly expensive. I remember trying a couple of times where I didn’t want to use Bolt because it’s so expensive but I end up using it because it’s the only option,” said Sharif. “I remember when I used to work in Lac 2, I actually found it impossible to get a regular taxi. Bolt was the only option. Or you walk for 10 to 15 minutes [to a stop] to get the taxi collectif [shared taxi]. But there’s a lot of competition there, too. So, the best option is Bolt.”
Non-Bolt Taxi Passengers Priced Out?
“The majority of [regular taxi] passengers are middle income,” explained Lahlaoui, of the Chamber of Individual Taxis. “They use taxis to commute to work, instead of taking collective transportation or the tram, which is often in a state of disrepair. They can’t necessarily afford a car, so they take the taxi.”
Other kinds of taxi passengers are those “in emergency situations, such as those going to the hospital. But these are not typical everyday clients—they use taxis exceptionally,” explained Lahlaoui adding that “those with lower income tend to take collective, public transportation.”
However, the fact that in certain instances there is no possibility to choose between a regular taxi and a Bolt taxi has important implications for commuters in Tunis. If, at times, only Bolt taxis are available, then taxi passengers may have no choice but to pay for the company’s services. This means that the meter price set by the Ministry of Transportation—explicitly to guarantee passengers a reasonable fee—is not a real option.
With Bolt’s growing influence in the taxi sector, where it has been able to effectively override State-imposed taxi meter fares, the taxi passenger demographic may be shifting up the income bracket. The added reliability that comes with Bolt’s customer review system holding drivers accountable may have the effect of encouraging some upper-class Tunisians to use taxis more frequently. By the same token, with the potentially prohibitive increase in prices that comes with Bolt’s services, there is a risk that some lower-middle- or middle-income Tunisians accustomed to riding taxis will either be forced to deal with greater wait times for non-Bolt taxis, or turn to other options for transportation.
As previous Meshkal reporting has highlighted, the infrastructure of Greater Tunis overwhelmingly favors transportation by private automobile, owing to policies implemented during the Ben Ali era alongside deteriorating investment in mass transit, public transportation. Nevertheless, most inhabitants of the city do not own cars, and must use other forms of transportation. Because Bolt’s pricing system has made the option of riding a taxi more difficult, it is likely that the already overburdened public metro and bus systems, as well as the taxis collectifs, will see increased pressure from former taxi passengers.
Bolt therefore seems to be exacerbating the problems of the broader Tunis transportation ecosystem, where the burden of lengthy wait times falls disproportionately upon middle- and working-class Tunisians.
Calls to Action
As Bolt’s hold on the taxi sector has grown stronger, passengers unhappy with the company’s policies have begun to raise their voices.
On the morning of June 16th, 2022, a handful of protesters gathered in front of the Ministry of Transportation, holding signs expressing dissatisfaction with the exorbitant prices of Bolt and other applications. Despite the tension between Bolt and the ministry, protesters said they found both institutions responsible for the new problems that passengers face.
“Where is the government? Taxi applications are eating into the income (“sweat”) of workers,” read one sign.
Another read: “Ministry of Transportation, organize the taxi sector.”
“At the beginning of [ridesourcing] applications, it was normal. You could get a normal taxi or order a taxi using the application,” said Manel Mejri, organizer of the protest and journalist at Radio Misk. “Now it’s crazy. For example, if you take a taxi from downtown Tunis to La Marsa, it should cost you between 12 and 13 dinars. You now find that with the application, it easily goes up to 25 or 30 dinars. And the worst is that there are no more taxis that do not use the application.”
“Either you wait an hour for a taxi that never comes or you download the application,” she added.
In principle, Mejri is not against ridesourcing technology. Her problem is with the free reign that ridesourcing companies currently have to dominate the taxi sector.
“It’s good to have applications,” said Mejri. “It makes life easier, of course. To have an application that adds two or three dinars to a taxi ride is entirely normal, since the driver will come to where you are and drop you off safely, and there is very little wait time. But the fact of having a price three or four times higher is really exploitative. It’s a scam. The Ministry of Transportation has to regulate this problem.”
The ministry’s unclear stance towards Bolt could come from the fact that the application has satisfied drivers as well as certain groups of passengers, while requiring little concrete action from the ministry itself in improving the taxi sector. But as the reality of a Bolt-dominated taxi sector takes hold and lower income passengers are priced out, the ministry will have to contend with increased pressure on other transportation systems in Tunis.
In cities such as Athens and Dublin, public authorities have been able to manage problems first introduced by Uber by limiting application usage to taxis—which protects taxi drivers—and by ending surge pricing through regulation and the imposition of State-dictated meter prices in order to protect passengers. In Tunisia, where apps are legally obliged to use taxi drivers, authorities are already halfway towards achieving this policy solution. Those protesting Bolt’s practices say that the Ministry of Transportation should now limit or ban the app’s surge pricing in favor of a consistent price, presumably set by the taxi meter.
Another alternative could be to introduce a State-run application that would allow for the quick pairing and shorter waiting times granted by ridesourcing technology while keeping taxi prices in the State’s hands. Publicly-managed apps have been launched in some cities, although they have faced challenges from private applications like Uber, which have operated at a loss for years apparently in order to drive out all competition.
In both cases, although drivers would almost certainly make less than they do with Bolt, the greater number of rides would likely ensure that they could still make more than they did before the introduction of ridesourcing technology.
Bolt has provided partial solutions to the old problems of taxi passengers, namely long wait times, haggling over pricing, and drivers refusing to go to certain destinations. For drivers it has brought more regular work and greater income. But unless the Ministry of Transportation is proactive in regulating Bolt and other applications, the improvements that ridesourcing technology has introduced to the taxi sector will also come with new problems that are likely to spill over into Tunis transportation as a whole.
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