LONDON — Europe’s taxi drivers Wednesday picked a fight with Uber, the popular smartphone car-paging service, and dared consumers to choose sides.
From London to Lyon and Madrid to Milan, thousands of taxi drivers protested the rise of Uber — the San Francisco-pioneered app that allows users to hail rides from participating drivers at the touch of a button — stopping in the middle of streets and shutting down major portions of cities.
The service and others like it have run into loud opposition on both sides of the Atlantic from taxi companies resentful of the invasion. Indeed, Seattle has had a front-row seat for the battle.
In London, drivers of the city’s iconic black cabs vented their anger by converging on Trafalgar Square by the hundreds Wednesday afternoon. They slowed to a halt, honked horns and blocked traffic on streets leading to government offices, the Thames and the West End on one of the warmest days of the year.
- Fans still reeling from Super Bowl ticket nightmare
- Rental-car drivers dinged by toll charges
- Marshawn Lynch talks about final play of Super Bowl — from Turkey
- Washington basketball great Christian Welp dies at 51
- Socialist Kshama Sawant: Action-now approach gains influence
Most Read Stories
“It’ll decimate the industry,” Grant Davis, 50, who has driven a black cab for more than half his life, said of Uber. “This is the dollar coming from Silicon Valley and saying to our mayor, Boris Johnson: ‘We’re coming in and we’re going to operate private-hire vehicles, and you’re not going to complain about it.’ ”
The public display laid bare the growing tension between some of Europe’s traditional industries that have barely changed in decades and the rising influence of companies from Silicon Valley, for which disruptive technologies are badges of honor.
In Europe, taxi drivers represent the heavily regulated and closed-shop way of doing business. In London, aspiring cabbies are famously tested on their mastery of “the Knowledge” — their familiarity with the city’s crazy web of streets and alleys, popular destinations and shortcuts — and must meet safety and other standards to earn their medallions.
Uber’s fleet of freelance chauffeurs won’t be subject to the same scrutiny.
“Licensed taxi drivers … go through a rigorous regime to get their license and the right to be publicly hired,” said Mick Bailey, chairman of the London branch of a union representing transport workers. “That licensing has been in place for 300 years” — its roots hark back to horse-and-buggy days — “and we don’t intend to give it up.”
London is home to about 25,000 black cabs; the average cabbie makes about $40,000 a year. Tens of thousands of minicabs, which operate on fixed fares rather than meters, also ply the roads.
Uber drivers, by contrast, are freelancers who employ GPS-enabled smartphones to link up with passengers. The company has expanded globally into more than 100 cities in 36 countries and is considered such a growing force that some of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors have poured money into it, raising the company’s value to $17 billion.
The drivers who went on strike across Europe on Wednesday say Uber does not comply with local rules and fails to pay the same taxes as conventional taxi owners and drivers.
Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, Uber’s regional general manager for northern Europe, rejected those claims. Instead, he said the company was offering competition where little had been available.
‘‘In Paris, the number of taxis hasn’t changed since the 1950s,’’ Gore-Coty said. ‘‘The strikes are an attempt to desperately fight against competition in the market.’’
The strikes might have produced the opposite of what the protesters wanted: a lot of free publicity for Uber.
On Wednesday, Uber said it had an 850 percent increase in people signing up in Britain, compared with last Wednesday. In other cities such as Paris and Lyon, France, Uber offered a 50 percent discount to woo customers.
‘‘I signed up today,’’ said Andy Williams, an American living near Milan who moved to Italy four years ago. ‘I don’t like the Italian business mentality. They are just about getting your money. There’s no customer service.’’
In Paris, hundreds of taxi drivers converged to protest at the city’s two main airports, and many taxi drivers gathered at the École Militaire in central Paris later in the day. A mediator appointed by the French government prepared legislation to resolve the conflict.
One proposal, which has the potential to challenge Uber’s business model, would allow consumers in France to see only licensed taxis on an app that would be created by a government-run body called Etalab.
Taxi drivers in Paris said they were upset that they pay 20 percent more in taxes than Uber drivers, as well as a 10 percent value-added tax on fares not required of Uber cars.
‘‘Uber cabs are stealing our clients,’’ said José Losada, 36. ‘‘We are regulated to death, while they circumvent the law.’’
In Brussels, Uber was banned this year after a court ruled it did not have the appropriate permits to operate in the city. Uber drivers would face big fines if they picked up passengers through the company’s app.
In Berlin, Richard Leipold, chairman of the Berlin Taxi Association, won an injunction against Uber in the German capital in April, barring the company from operating there. The injunction, however, is not being enforced while Uber appeals the ruling.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.