Opposition to ride-sharing companies goes global

To earn his license to drive one of London’s famed black car taxis, Ian Beetlestone had to memorize 20,000 streets in a 6-mile radius and undergo a rigorous training process — learning the famed Knowledge of London in a process that spanned several years, as anyone who seeks to drive a taxi in London does.

So when American ride-sharing company Uber tried to move into the U.K. city with a smartphone application that connects riders with drivers using their own cars, taxi drivers and train workers across Europe united in protest Wednesday, refusing to pick up fares and driving slowly to create widespread gridlock.

“It’s not just about Uber, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Beetlestone said. Taxis are the only ride-for-hire entities allowed to use a meter in London, and the primary argument against Uber is that its smartphone app behaves like a meter, calculating the fare that riders pay based on distance of a trip.

Uber and other ride-sharing companies popping up around the globe have yet to move into an area where they did not face significant resistance from regulators and established taxi companies. Exactly what form that resistance has taken has varied.

American cities and states have handled the disruptive technology in different fashion. Virginia earlier this month issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber and Lyft, and last week Pennsylvania slapped daily fines of $1,000 on each company for operating in Pittsburgh. Even though Colorado’s governor recently signed legislation to allow ride-sharing companies to operate, taxi and insurance officials resisted Lyft and Uber when they first arrived.

Dave Sutton is a spokesman for Who’s Driving You, a public safety initiative of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, a Maryland-based trade group representing 1,100 taxi companies. The group’s primary position is that ride-sharing companies avoid regulation to the public’s detriment, skirting rules requiring commercial insurance, and painting taxi companies as outdated monopolies.

“The biggest myth, or stereotype, is this idea that taxi companies are an entrenched industry,” Sutton said. “Uber likes to promote this idea of a big conglomerate when the reality is the opposite: Most taxi companies are small mom-and-pop companies that follow the rules.”

The European protests this week may have proved a boon for Uber; the company reported downloads of its smartphone app were up 850 percent over the previous Wednesday.

“Europeans overwhelmingly voted with their fingertips by riding Uber, downloading Uber and standing up for more consumer choice,” the San Francisco company said in a statement.

The main point of contention in London is the distinction between the black car taxis, which anyone can hail on a street and which use meters to determine fares, and minicabs, with which passengers call a central dispatcher to obtain a ride.

Uber’s app circumvents both processes, Beetlestone said. Transport for London, the regulatory body, is seeking a ruling from the high court to determine Uber’s status. Lyft is not yet operating in Europe.

Whatever the outcome, Beetlestone was heartened by Wednesday’s action. “It was good for the trade itself to see that it still cared about this, that we were all able to come together.”