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Friday 22 August 2014

30,000 taxi drivers stage huge protest over Uber app

Adrian Weckler

Published 12/06/2014 | 02:30

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Taxi drivers protest in Milan, Italy

Uber, the car-sharing service that's rankling with some cities' taxi-drivers, is fighting its biggest protest yet from European cabbies who say the smartphone application threatens their livelihoods.

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Traffic began snarling in cities yesterday, with a total of more than 30,000 taxi and limo drivers from London to Milan planning blockades in tourist centers and shopping districts. They are asking regulators to apply tougher rules on San Francisco-based Uber, whose software allows customers to order a lift from drivers who don't need licences that can cost €200,000 apiece in some cities.

While similar demonstrations this year have led to smashed windshields and traffic chaos in Paris, a united front in Europe highlights the challenges for Uber's expansion after a funding round that values the company at €12bn, almost five times the figure in an earlier round.

In Ireland, taxi-drivers are less upset about Uber because drivers of its fleet cars here are generally licensed in the same way as limousine drivers.

"Uber are not so much of a threat here," said Jerry Brennan, the national secretary of the National Irish Taxi Association (NITA). "You don't have 3,000 or 4,000 private hire vehicles here, partly because Irish law effectively did away with hackney drivers. That's different from the UK, where private hire drivers still represent a large number of vehicles."

However, about 1,200 Parisian drivers were blocking the Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports yesterday morning and preventing private car services from picking up passengers, said Nadine Annet, vice president at the FNAT taxi association in France.

About 1,000 drivers in Berlin were expected to protest yesterday, while in London, between 10,000 and 12,000 black cabs and private hire cars were due to descend on the tourist hubs of Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, said Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association.

In a response, Uber said it was opening its service in London to black-cab drivers, saying its 5pc commission was the lowest of all booking systems in the city.

The protests have a deeper significance beyond the taxi industry. They underscore the growing backlash against the likes of room-booking service Airbnb and video-streaming provider Aereo Inc as they clash with traditional industries arguing the competitors should be subject to the same regulations.

Chief executive officer Travis Kalanick – who started Uber in 2009 after he and partner Garrett Camp couldn't find a cab in Paris – has pushed the company into 37 countries. He said the low prices and ease of use that their drivers could offer would lead to a base of support from consumers that regulators won't be able to ignore.

"Citizens of these cities are getting around the cities much more cheaply," Kalanick told Bloomberg TV in an interview this week. "How does a regulator or city official take that away from the population? Say that inexpensive transportation that's high quality, you shouldn't have?"

Uber supporters say the app promotes competition and innovation. European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes said in a statement: "This innovation isn't going to disappear through blackmail or diktat." In April, she called a local Brussels court's decision to ban Uber "crazy". (Additional reporting, Bloomberg)

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