Paris taxi drivers strike, but Uber opens second front in the war
After a political setback last week, Parisian taxi drivers protest new-era car services booked via smartphone apps. But the new UberPop ride-sharing service could bring even more disruptions.
PARIS -- Taxi drivers brought gridlock to Paris traffic in a protest Monday, unhappy that rival car services like Uber, AlloCab.com, and SnapCar overturned a new rule that imposed a mandatory 15-minute wait for passengers using them.
But today's disturbances might be just be the first stages of difficulty moving to next-generation transportation, because Uber also has just launched a new ride-sharing service called UberPop. It turns most people with a car and a driver's license into a low-budget car service, similar to what ride-sharing start-up Lyft already offers in 20 US cities.
Monday's taxi protest closed highway exits to Paris' two main airports, with a slow procession to central Paris spreading delays across the city. Unlike a January demonstration, when violent attacks struck Uber cars, the new protest's problems seemed limited to bad traffic.
"Note to Self: Don't ever book a flight for the day Paris taxi drivers decide to go on a strike and block all the highway exits," said Twitter user Julia Salata.
The new car services, in France called VTC (voitures de tourisme avec chauffeur), let people reserve a car using a smartphone app that also handles payment. The cars themselves don't face the heavy regulations of taxis, and their drivers don't need to pay a price typically exceeding $270,000 for one of the limited number of taxi licenses available in Paris.
But the new UberPop could complicate the market even more by democratizing for-profit driving the same way that Airbnb has spread the hospitality industry. Taxi drivers -- and VTC drivers, too -- could suffer the same way hotels have with Airbnb, because the Internet and smartphones make it vastly easier for customers to find services across town or across the globe.
The 15-minute rule
The politically influential taxi lobby -- there are five separate unions for drivers -- successfully pushed a regulation in France that starting early in 2014 hobbled VTC services with a mandatory minimum wait of 15 minutes for passengers who request a car. That's a long time for services like Uber that pride themselves on getting cars available within 5 minutes.
VTC operator AlloCab.com lodged an objection to the rule, and on February 5, won a victory over it. The state council, which reviews administration rules to ensure they comply with French law, suspended the rule for a year while a judge decides whether it should be annuled.
On Saturday, the French government announced an effort to "balance the competition between taxis and VTCs." The Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Crafts said in the announcement that a "recognized personality" will convene a commission that represents taxis, motorcycle taxis, VTCs, passengers, and government authorities, and that commission will propose a "balanced and sustainable" solution to the taxi problem within two months.
"We welcome the government's initiative to nominate a 'personality' to define all the conditions that will help regulate taxis and VTC in France," AlloCab.com Chief Marketing Office Christophe Amalric told CNET. "The government's initiative will be successful if all "actors" [involved parties] are asked to share their opinions and regulation proposals."
That wasn't the only big news that day, though. Uber launched ride-sharing service UberPop in Paris. With it, Uber connects people who need a ride with ordinary people who've had a driver's license for more than three years; the fee is less than Uber's higher-end services with professional drivers.
It's similar to what the Lyft ride-sharing service offers. In December, Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick listed such ride-sharing services as a competitive threat.
The VTC debate has been acrimonious, but UberPop could broaden it to an even broader constituency if lots of people sign up to become drivers. It means that the VTC industry, instead being the disruptors, could also become the disrupted.
Indeed, AlloCab.com is opposed. After January's protest, it joined with the Academie des Chauffeurs de Prestige training organization to establish the National Union of Courteous Chauffeurs, and the UNCC wasted no time in protesting UberPop.
A statement by UNCC Secretary General Yanis Kiansky, who also is Allocab's CEO, had several objections: UberPop will undercut pay for professional drivers; UberPop breaks rules about carpooling for money; and UberPop's 4-euro minimum fare is less than the 6.86 euros that the government set for taxis.
It's not yet clear whether UberPop will catch on widely in Paris, but the service is operational and easy for Uber users to find. A trip from the Hotel de Ville in central Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport to the northeast gives a price of 33 to 45 euros ($45 to ($61) for UberPop; 45 euros ($61) for the midrange UberX service; and 70 euros ($95) for the premium UberBerline service with a more luxurious sedan.
What is clear is that the Internet, especially when augmented by smartphones that work all over, isn't done rewriting the rules of commerce.