Cities in Europe are set to grind to a halt today as cabbies protest against e-hailing service Uber -- but it seems any publicity is good publicity for the controversial app as it adds London's black cabs to its books.
Uber is an app that enables you to hire and pay for a car from your phone or tablet. It uses GPS to pinpoint your location and calculate the cost of your journey, but taxi drivers argue it breaks the existing rules. Up until now, you could hire a private hire vehicle like a minicab or limo through Uber, but today in London it has added the option of hiring a taxi with a new UberTAXI service.
The move is timed to head off a demonstration by angry taxi drivers, who will blockade Trafalgar Square at 2pm. Drivers in Madrid and Paris are also protesting today by bringing traffic to a standstill.
The protests mark just the latest obstacle for controversial Uber, which has faced opposition for its service in virtually every city it has chosen to operate in, with local taxi drivers seeing it as a threat to their business. As in London, taxi drivers elsewhere have argued that Uber's service actually skirts the rules, while Uber has argued that it is merely disrupting an older industry and addressing an unmet demand.
London's cabbies protesting today say they're aiming their ire not at Uber itself, but at the city's transit authority Transport for London for allowing Uber to operate. Cabbies argue that an Uber driver's smartphone is essentially a meter, and under London transport rules, only black cabs can have a meter.
Transport for London has hit back at the demo, branding it as "pointless disruption." TfL's Chief Operating Officer for Surface Transport, Garrett Emmerson, argues that the demonstration is about "a legal issue that is down to the Courts to decide upon," speaking of the fact TfL has referred Uber to the High Court.
TfL wants the court to back its decision to allow Uber to operate in London.
EU commissioner and campaigner on issues such as Neelie Kroes argues that was the right decision, tweeting that "innovators can't sit around waiting for permission that never comes."
"Entrepreneurs disrupt, it's what they do, and our economy needs them. Ignoring them, banning them or striking won't help us manage disruption," says Kroes. "We need to work with tech not against it, it's not the enemy."
But this isn't a straightforward question of an out-of-date industry trying to hold back the tide of technological change. Cabbies have embraced technology with apps like Hailo, and taxi drivers are even building their own apps like TaxiCab, which is in development as a response to the recent controversy.
"It was only a matter of time before the digital age found a way to automate the booking process from the customer to the driver," says Chris Jordan, managing director of Wirral-based CabFind, an e-hailing app that powers the websites of private hire companies. "As a trade, we have to embrace these changes."
Jordan is critical of the protest, however. "The London taxi strike against Uber is a crazy idea," he says. "It is not going to make a scrap of difference and will only serve to give even more publicity to Uber in the national and international press."