European taxi drivers protest Uber car-paging service
LONDON — Europe’s taxi drivers on Wednesday picked a fight with Uber, an increasingly popular smartphone car-paging service, and dared consumers to choose sides.
From London to Lyon and Madrid to Milan, thousands of taxi drivers protested the rise of Uber, an American upstart, stopping in the middle of streets and shutting down major portions of cities.
Drivers of London’s famed black cabs refused to pick up fares and drove at a snail’s pace through Trafalgar Square — creating nightmarish gridlock — and travelers in France were hobbled not only by the taxi slowdown but also by strikes on the national train network and Paris commuter lines.
The public display laid bare the growing tension between some of Europe’s traditional industries that have barely changed in decades and the rising influence of companies from Silicon Valley, for which disruptive technologies are badges of honor.
Time and again in the United States, when new technologies have raised issues about consumer choice and convenience versus traditional workers’ rights, consumers have won out. But in Europe, as is evident by the anti-Uber protesters disrupting the daily routines of tens of millions of people Wednesday, that conflict is still playing out.
In Europe, taxi drivers represent the heavily regulated and closed-shop way of doing business. Before London drivers can join the workforce, for example, they must navigate byzantine licensing procedures that include memorizing the city’s maps, street by street — a process that can take years.
Uber drivers are freelancers who use GPS-enabled smartphones to link up with passengers. The company has expanded into more than 100 cities in 36 countries and is considered such a growing force that some of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors have poured money into it, raising the company’s value to about $17 billion.
The drivers who went on strike Wednesday across Europe argue that Uber does not comply with local rules and fails to pay the same level of taxes as conventional taxi owners and drivers.
‘‘There’s room for everyone, but you have to obey the law,’’ said Mario Dalmedo, a London taxi driver who joined about 10,000 other cabdrivers in an hourlong protest in the British capital that clogged roads. ‘‘Uber isn’t properly regulated. It’s a slippery slope. Quality of life will go down if these services are allowed to operate.’’
But Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern Europe, rejected claims that the startup was breaking local rules and did not pay enough taxes. Instead, he said, the company was offering competition where little had been available.
‘‘In Paris, the number of taxis hasn’t changed since the 1950s,’’ Gore-Coty said. ‘‘The strikes are an attempt to desperately fight against competition in the market.’’
The strikes might have also had the opposite effect of what protesters want: publicity for Uber. On Wednesday, Uber said it had an 850 percent increase in the number of people signing up in Britain, compared with the prior Wednesday.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.