Innovation: From dolmuş to Uber

Broadly speaking, an export-industry focused perception monopolizes the word “innovation” as a national policy-making apparatus in Turkey. “Innovation,” as we have internalized it, must be shiny, new and digital.

Indigenous and innovative solutions to everyday problems tend to be not recognized as “innovation,” such as the dolmuş minibuses in our everyday urban contexts. Dolmuş is a practical form of mobility that is often perceived as a “necessary nuisance,” operating within a legal gray area, under frequent political and social pressure to be phased out. Rethinking the dolmuş phenomena with a positive light instead of our habit of dismissing it delineates a new perspective in approaching “local innovation.”

Times of economic crisis have been junctures of innovative leaps in the history of urban mobility. Just as the digital ride-sharing application Uber was born out of the Great Depression of 2009 in San Francisco, its non-digital ancestor Dolmuş was born four generations earlier, at the peak of Great Depression of 1929 in Istanbul. When a restauranteur, Halit, in the historical business district of Istanbul became unemployed, took upon the job of a taxi driver — a common tale of fate till our day. However, as the economy got even worse, his clients became unable to use taxis, leaving him desperate for finding an alternative.

At that point, Halit tried out the idea of sharing one ride’s cost between four passengers that were going towards a similar direction. Halit’s model was called “dolmuş,” as the word literally means “stuffed” in Turkish, referring to a taxi that would only leave when “stuffed” with people.

In practical innovative fashion, he rearranged the taxi business model (which was popularized in Western Europe since the late 19th century) and commercialized it in its new form.

Almost immediately, his business model was taken up by fellow taxi drivers in the city, offering rides on popular routes for the fraction of their original prices. The cars they used were typical American sedans of the time, which could take up to five people or even more, as many dolmuş drivers would cut the cars in half and enlarge them to insert another row of seats. Through this modification, the American sedans which were originally produced as family cars were translated into an artefact of commercial urban mobility.

The dolmuş drivers hence made “foreign technology” travel beyond its origin, by adapting and repurposing imported machines within their own local context.

The dolmuş urban mobility model is now found in every town in Turkey and in every neighborhood across large cities.

The American sedans of the 1930s are now replaced with minibuses which are specifically produced by local factories as dolmuş vehicles.

The dolmuş model offers both flexibility and affordability: You can get on or off wherever you need on the route and pay a negligible cost in comparison to taxicabs’ fares.

These two value-adds render dolmuş robust, vital and indispensable in urban contexts. As much as dolmuş drivers constantly face regulatory trouble due to their tendency to follow their own prices and rules and also invoke social unpopularity due to their often-reckless driving and hyper-masculine attitude, dolmuş shows no signs of disappearing from the landscape of urban Turkey anytime soon.

Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News on December 02 2019: https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/innovation-from-dolmus-to-uber-149326

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