European taxi drivers protest car-paging service Uber


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LONDON — Europe’s taxi drivers 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. The public display laid bare growing tension between some of Europe’s traditional industries that have barely changed in decades and the rising influence of firms 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 regularly won out. But in Europe, as is evident by the anti-Uber protesters disrupting 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, by contrast, are freelancers who employ GPS-enabled smartphones to link up with passengers. The company has expanded globally 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 $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 London taxi driver Mario Dalmedo, who joined about 10,000 other cabdrivers in an hourlong protest in the British capital that clogged roads on a warm and sunny afternoon. ‘‘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 tax in the European cities where it operated. Instead, he said the company was offering competition where little had previously been available.

‘‘In Paris, the number of taxis hasn’t changed since the 1950s,’’ Mr. Gore-Coty said. ‘‘The strikes are an attempt to desperately fight against competition in the market.’’

The strikes might have also produced the opposite effect of what the protesters wanted — a lot of free publicity for Uber. On Wednesday, Uber said it had an 850 percent increase in people signing up in Britain, compared with last Wednesday. In other European cities such as Paris and Lyon, France, Uber offered a 50 percent discount to woo customers.

‘‘I signed up today,’’ said Andy Williams, an American near Milan, who moved to Italy four years ago. ‘‘I’ve been following the protests for a couple of weeks. I don’t like the Italian business mentality. They are just about getting your money. There’s no customer service.’’

Europe’s taxi industry is the latest sector to face new technological rivals. When WhatsApp, the Internet messaging startup, began in the region, many telecom operators such as KPN of the Netherlands blocked the service because it undercut their own text messaging business. Local regulators were eventually forced to intervene, demanding that the companies open their networks to the startup.

The strikes Wednesday against Uber added to the criticisms. In Paris, hundreds of taxi drivers converged to protest at the city’s two main airports, and many taxi drivers gathered at the École Militaire in central Paris later in the day. A mediator appointed by the French government prepared legislation to resolve the conflict.

Europe’s taxi industry is the latest sector to face new technological rivals. When WhatsApp, the Internet messaging startup, began in the region, many telecom operators like KPN of the Netherlands blocked the service because it undercut their own text messaging business. Local regulators were eventually forced to intervene, demanding that the companies open their networks to the startup.

The strikes against Uber on Wednesday added to the criticisms. In Paris, hundreds of taxi drivers converged to protest at the city’s two main airports, and many taxi drivers gathered at the École Militaire in central Paris later in the day. A mediator appointed by the French government prepared legislation to resolve the conflict.

Taxi drivers in Paris said Wednesday that they were upset that they pay 20 percent more in taxes than Uber chauffeurs, as well as a 10 percent value-added tax on fares that is not required of Uber cars. ‘‘Uber cabs are stealing our clients,’’ said José Losada, 36. ‘‘We are regulated to death, while they circumvent the law.’’

In Madrid, Julio Moreno, president of the Spanish taxi federation, told local media that ‘‘100 percent’’ of taxi drivers had answered the call for a 24-hour strike, and passengers arriving at the city’s main airport and train stations were greeted by deserted taxi stands.

On Serrano, one of Madrid’s main thoroughfares, Pedro Vargas, a frustrated businessman who had hoped to travel by taxi, said ‘‘it seems absurd to strike about a threat, rather than a known problem,’’ in reference to the fact that Uber has not started offering its services in Madrid. (The company recently started in Barcelona, its first Spanish city.)

In Brussels, Uber was banned this year after a court ruled that it did not have the appropriate permits to operate in the city. Uber drivers would face big fines if they picked up passengers through the company’s app.

And in Berlin, Richard Leipold, chairman of the Berlin Taxi Association, won an injunction against Uber in the German capital in April, barring the company from operating there. But the injunction is not being enforced while Uber appeals the ruling.

On Wednesday, several hundred taxi drivers converged from Berlin’s main airport and railway stations on the Olympic stadium, parking their cream-colored cabs and protesting for fair competition regulations.

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