Europe fare fight – trouble on the streets

December 26, 2015 6:31 am

 French taxi drivers made their feelings known, writing “Uber vole la France”, of “Uber steals France”. Picture / AP

From London and Paris to New Delhi and Sao Paulo, traditional taxi
drivers united worldwide against Uber in 2015, a year that saw riots,
legal battles and even a kidnapping in protest against the startup.
Since
first winning customers in San Francisco five years ago, Uber has
enjoyed spectacular global growth by allowing customers to hail drivers
using a smartphone app and bypass traditional taxi services.
But
the company, now operating in 58 countries including New Zealand, and
valued at more than US$50 billion ($73.4 billion), has suffered a bumpy
ride on the road to success, infuriating conventional cab firms and
battling regulators across numerous nations.
The firm’s safety
standards have also been called into question after Uber drivers were
accused of abduction and sexual attacks of female passengers in India
and the United States.
In New Delhi authorities tried to ban the
firm, after it was accused of failing to conduct adequate background
checks on a driver who last month was jailed for life for the rape of a
female passenger in his car.

But Uber has flouted the ban much to the outrage of traditional car services.
In
many countries, cabbies say Uber represents unfair competition because
its drivers are not subject to the often-strict rules and restrictions
that govern conventional firms.
Their anger boiled over this
year, notably in Paris where rioting by heavily unionised taxi drivers
and the arrest of Uber executives in June led the startup to suspend its
low-cost UberPOP service – six months after it was banned.
Licensed
cabbies, who in some countries must undergo hundreds of hours of
training, accuse Uber of endangering their jobs by flooding the market
with cheaper drivers who only need a GPS to get around.
“Taxi
drivers, all right – they’ve got big mouths – but normally they’re not
aggressive,” Malia, who has driven a taxi in Paris for three years, said
of the riots in the city, which included torching of cars.
“But these guys have families to feed, debts. They’ve been pushed to the brink.”
Uber
does not employ drivers or own vehicles, but instead uses
non-professionally licensed contractors with their own cars, allowing
them to run their own businesses.
In London, 1500 of the city’s
iconic black cabs blocked streets in September, while Mayor Boris
Johnson raised drivers’ ire after calling those opposed to new
technology “Luddites”.
Black cabbies spend three years studying
for “The Knowledge”, a gruelling test that requires them to memorise
every street in London before gaining a licence, a tradition dating back
to the 1800s.
They say they are being squeezed by the popular, cheaper Uber.
In
New Delhi, the ban authorities set out in the aftermath of the rape
case has not been strictly enforced and Uber has continued to operate in
the city.
Traditional taxi drivers lounge on their black and
yellow Ambassador taxis, a familiar sight in the Indian capital for
generations, waiting for fares.
“I don’t get customers for days.
We sit idle for hours waiting for customers who book Uber even before
they step out of their homes,” Sharad Kumar, a driver for 27 years, said
at a stand.
“Uber and other taxis are getting money from foreign
companies and are providing services at much cheaper rates. We cannot
compete with them,” he said.
The 53-year-old, who earns 15,000
rupees ($329) a month, acknowledged that old-style cabbies needed to
embrace new technology to compete, but said they lacked funds to do so.
Simran
Singh, 25, represents the new breed of taxi driver. He quit his job as a
sales executive two months ago to become an Uber driver, using his own
car, and now earns a daily wage of around US$30 through fares and
incentive payments, compared to around US$22-a-day previously.
“It’s only been a few days but the earnings are promising,” Singh said.
Uber
pays sums on top of fares to woo drivers, part of aggressive expansion
plans that this year saw it reach 22 cities in India alone, its largest
market by cities outside the United States.
Uber chief adviser
David Plouffe has defended the firm, saying debate had been heavily
focused on the startup’s effect on traditional cabbies.
“There
has been much less focus on Uber’s broader impact on the economy,
especially the scale of that impact,” he said in Washington in November,
with its 1.1 million drivers worldwide earning more than US$3.5 billion
this year.
Uber has vowed to fight back against a mountain of
legal challenges, especially in , after quickly expanding often in
brazen violation of local laws.
In October police raided the
company’s European headquarters in the Netherlands, while in London,
officials proposed a 27-page set of regulations that Uber said made “no
sense”.
In Germany, a court in March ordered the company outright to stop its service.
Fighting back, Uber has turned to the European Union to help undo the bans and filed complaints in Germany, France and Spain.
But
worldwide, traditional taxis remain fiercely opposed to Uber, with
violent protests as far afield as Brazil, including a brief kidnapping
of an Uber driver in Sao Paulo.
In the capital of neighbouring
Uruguay, hundreds of cabbies blocked a central street in November to
prevent Uber from training new drivers.
“They came here to take away all the jobs in the formal sector,” taxi union president Oscar Dourado said.

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