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London streets blockaded as taxi drivers protest against Uber

The city's iconic black cabs brought roads to a standstill in a protest against what drivers see as unfair regulation of the industry.

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A London cab driver during a "go-slow" demonstration. Justin Tallis/Getty Images

London's streets came to a standstill today as taxi drivers staged another protest, taking aim at local authorities and controversial ride-sharing app Uber.

Hundreds of drivers in the city's iconic black cabs blockaded Oxford Street, the famous shopping Mecca. Organised by taxi organisation United Cabbies Group, the protest is aimed at Transport for London (TfL), the local transit authority, for failing to apply the regulations fairly to the different vehicle hire outfits in the city. Uber, the international app that allows consumers to summon and pay for a private hire vehicle from their smartphone, is a particular focus of their concern.

Uber uses GPS to pinpoint your location and calculate the cost of your journey, but taxi drivers argue it breaks the existing rules. Authorities distinguish between taxi cabs -- like the black cab in London or the yellow cab in New York -- which must be individually licensed, and private hire vehicles -- like minicabs or executive cars -- that don't. The distinction is the taxi's meter, which counts up the fare as you travel; taxi drivers argue the app acts a meter, but Uber is regulated as a private hire company.

"This protest is about Uber," says Garrett Emmerson, TfL's Chief Operating Officer for Surface Transport, "and has been organised by a small group of taxi drivers outside of the main, recognised taxi trade bodies and associations. As the regulator of taxi and private hire services, TfL welcomes the introduction of new technology that benefits taxi passengers, as long as it meets licensing and regulatory requirements.

"TfL applies the relevant legislation equally," Emmerson insists, "and any suggestion that Uber has been treated any differently to any other private hire operator is a nonsense."

Uber has run into trouble with watchdogs in several cities around the world. The app is considered by cabbies and regulators to be operating a taxi service, and that its offering should be regulated as such. Uber argues it's a technology company that simply matches up riders and drivers through its mobile application.

Uber last month launched a free pilot program in the Japanese city of Fukuoka, saying that it was a "research project" and not the car-hailing service it provides elsewhere. The app for Fukuoka users still provides a method for linking passengers with drivers, whom Uber pays for picking people up, but Uber says that it's a fundamentally different kind of service that focuses on the gathering of data.

Disaffection among the existing taxi industry led to a worldwide demo in June 2014, when taxi drivers around the world blockaded streets from London to Rio de Janeiro. Drivers demand local authorities implement what cabbies in London call "a level playing field".

Black cab drivers must learn the streets by rote to earn their license, a process called "the knowledge". Uber and other private-hire drivers don't go through this process. Rival car-hailing app Hailo, which offers both black cabs and private-hire vehicles, hails the expertise of black cab drivers. "Years of training doing the knowledge and the licensing process guarantee consumers a safe, swift and hassle-free journey," the company said. "We support a competitive marketplace, but believe a level playing field is in the best interests of everyone."

Uber declined to comment.