It was 1937 when a sudden influx of drivers led authorities in Paris to set a quota of 14,000 taxi licenses. Seventy years later, the population of Paris has grown by 20-plus million but city authorities refuse to issue more than a few thousand new licenses, leading to one of the lowest cab-to-person ratios in major European cities and the lowest levels of consumer satisfaction. There’s a reported 17-year wait-list for a license, which go for as much as 200,000 to 250,000 euros on the secondary market. Drivers take on massive debt to enter the business; and it’s not uncommon for them to work upwards of 70 hours a week to pay off loans.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the cabbies of Paris are up in arms about the arrival of Uber, the car service app that’s sweeping the world and recently completed a new round of funding that valued the company at $17 billion. On Wednesday, taxi drivers in at least six major European cities, including Paris, went on strike, blocking roads and causing all kinds of traffic mayhem to send a message to Uber. (Ironically, Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, started the company after he couldn’t find a cab in Paris.)
Though the traffic-making spectacle appears to be a new tactic, the capitalists at the Silicon Valley darling are facing criticism similar to what it has received in the United States: That the company is skirting laborious taxi regulation and must be stopped.
Uber bills itself not as a taxi service, but as a ride-sharing service that simply connects drivers and passengers. Although that distinction is up for debate, it is important because few nations have policies that explicitly bans such services. France, however, bans almost all private-hire cars, and in the United States, Virginia recently gave Uber a cease-and-desist letter until the state updates its policy.
Some cities are reforming their convoluted cab systems in face of the new competition. London’s famous black cabs, for example, are being rolled into the app.
Paris, however, remains a monument to the worst kind of taxi-industry extremism. The city slapped minicab companies — cars for hire that you can’t hail on the street such as Easytake — with arbitrary vehicle size specifications that disqualified their entire fleet and put them out of business in 2012. Uber cars have been attacked with rocks and had their tires slashed. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed adding thousands of new licenses while reformers suggest buying back all existing ones and de-regulating the business. All reform plans and new legislation has been met with — you guessed it — taxi drivers blocking the streets.
Neelie Kroes, a vice president of the European Commission, has been vocal on this issue in favor of Uber. She wrote in a blog post that drivers have a right to be worried, but "we cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence."
Although local politicians are sensitive to the concerns of taxi drivers and the imperative to protect local jobs, Europe is also trying to move its often sclerotic bureaucracy into the 21st century, in part by making the continent more receptive to the tech industry. The promise of cheaper fares and expanded taxi access poses a threat to an industry that provides living wages to thousands of European drivers. The trade-off isalso one of quality: You’ll never have to navigate for a London cabbie; the same can’t be said of Uber drivers.
Still, in the age of ubiquitous GPS navigation, the notorious tests for London cabbies are becoming an anachronism. Referred to as "the Knowledge," London’s navigation tests for cabbies require them to know essentially every street and landmark in London. That’s a service Google Maps and its ilk also provides, making any driver with a pulse a rival of a London cabbie — and frequently at a much lower cost. With that in mind,the protest movement against Uber looks less like a high-minded effort to protect consumers and more like an attempt to maintain a monopoly.
Uber has now pushed into 37 countries and with big money and buzz behind it, it seems unlikely that the company won’t decisively break into the European market. In short: technology breeds disruption, so adapt and move on. But with the streets blocked, that won’t be easy.