Cabbies dismiss Uber 'PR stunt,' but protest may have backfired

Cabbies hit back at Uber's new London taxi service, but the protest may have driven more customers to the controversial app.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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London taxi drivers took to the streets today against e-hailing app Uber, but has the protest backfired? Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Angry cabbies have branded Uber's new taxi service a "PR stunt", but today's protest against the controversial app may have backfired as Uber claims the number of people signing up has increased by eight times.

Taxi drivers brought cities to a standstill across the world today, including London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin. They're protesting changes in the industry brought about by Uber, the most prominent of a range of e-hailing apps that enable you to hire and pay for a car from your phone or tablet. Uber is now operating in more than 100 cities in 37 countries. Previously operating with private hire vehicles -- such as minicabs and limos -- Uber today announced that in London it will now offer the option of a black cab too.

Taxis paralyse cities across Europe in Uber protest (pictures)

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Uber's service uses GPS to send the car straight to you and calculate the fare. Taxi drivers in London reckon that counts as a meter, and argue that as only licensed taxis are allowed to use meters, the city's transit authority Transport for London (TfL) should regulate Uber more closely.

To register their discontent with TfL, thousands of cabbies filled the streets in and around London's famous Trafalgar Square, which you may have spotted in movies including Tom Cruise's latest, " Edge of Tomorrow". Pulling to a halt, the cabs quickly choked traffic in the West End.

'London wants Uber'

But it seems any publicity is good publicity: Downloads of Uber have spiked as the protest keeps the app in the news, according to software analytics firm App Annie. And Uber says it has seen a massive 850 percent increase in sign-ups compared to last Wednesday. "The results are clear," Jo Bertram, Uber's UK and Ireland general manager, told the Telegraph: "London wants Uber in a big way."

London taxi drivers certainly don't. I visited the demonstration today to find out what cabbies think of Uber's new taxi service. Mick Walker of the London Cab Driver's Club said he "thought it was 1 April" when he heard today's news from Uber. Like all the taxi drivers I spoke to, he said he wasn't at all tempted to join Uber's black cab scheme, which he dismissed as a "PR stunt".

Another cabby, who gave his name as Carl, agreed. He also questioned the safety and reliability of Uber drivers, pointing out that a taxi driver has to have a criminal record check every year as well as MOTs for the car.

Carl told me that although he might consider GetTaxi, he felt being a subscriber to an e-hailing app "wasn't worth it."

Another driver, who asked not to be named, shrugged off the possibility of a public backlash against the taxi trade after the day of disruption. "People are with us," she said, adding, "It's not that we're against technology. We just want TfL to do what should have been done properly in the first place."

I also spoke to Jamie Owens, who blogs about the taxi industry as SuperCabby. After Hailo angered cabbies by turning to private hire, Owens and other drivers decided to create their own app. Built by a trainee taxi driver -- who are known as "knowledge boys" -- with experience of app development, TaxiCab is set to be ready by this weekend.

Playing Uber at its own game

Owens told me the app is a co-operative and therefore isn't driven by profit, allowing them to plan for discounts and Groupon offers. "We want to play Uber at their own game," he told me.

Like many cabbies I spoke to, Owens emphasises the difference between a taxi driver and an Uber driver. "It takes four years to do the Knowledge," he said. "That's the same as doing a degree. An Uber driver just applies and they send it in the post."

Taxis blockade London's streets. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

"When you get in a black cab," he explained, "you know you're getting a driver who's knowledgeable, who's fully licensed -- many of these guys are tour guides too. They know the history of London." He also highlighted the safety of black cabs compared to minicabs.

"And let's face it," SuperCabby adds, "the black cab is an icon of London."

With TfL passing the buck to the UK High Court and unrest continuing in cities around the world, it seems there's still a long road ahead for taxi apps.