LONDON/PARIS - Commuters in London, Berlin, Paris and Madrid faced a day of traffic chaos on Wednesday as taxi drivers mounted one of the biggest protests against the threat of Uber, a U.S. car service which allows people to summon rides at the touch of a button.
Paris taxi drivers slowed traffic on major arteries into the city centre on the morning commute, while in London, up to 12,000 taxi drivers planned to tie up the streets around central Trafalgar Square, just a stone's throw from Prime Minister David Cameron's official residence, from 2 p.m. (1300 GMT).
San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc., valued last week at US$18.2 billion just four years since its 2010 launch, has touched a raw nerve by bringing home the threat of technological advances to one of the world's most visible trades.
Taxi drivers across Europe say the applications of companies like Uber break local rules as well as endanger their livelihoods.
Uber, backed by investors such as Goldman Sachs and Google, contends its smartphone application complies with local regulations and says it is being targeted because of its success in winning customers.
"They're killing us off, starving us out," said Mick Fitz, who has been driving a London black taxi for 15 years. He and other black cab drivers allege Uber's technology is effectively a taximeter and thus contravenes a 1998 British law reserving the right to use a meter for licensed black taxis.
"With their taximeter, their apps that they use, their technology, those are taximeters basically, which by law only we are allowed to use," Fitz told Reuters.
Transport for London, the city's transport regulator, has so far supported Uber's position, but has referred the decision to the High Court.
Uber has expanded rapidly since it was founded by two U.S. technology entrepreneurs, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, and now operates in 128 cities across 37 countries.
But it's only the latest in a variety of apps for summoning taxis that threaten the traditional model in European cities such as London, where strict rules govern which cars can stop on the street to pick up hailing customers and which cars have to be pre-booked.
In Berlin, more than 300 out of an expected 1,000 taxi drivers joined a protest against companies like Uber from 1000 GMT, trying to snarl traffic between the Olympic Stadium and Tegel Airport, Berlin Central Station and Südkreuz Station.
Uber hit back in Germany by emailing its clients in the morning offering a 50% discount on all shared rides for the duration of the day. In London the company offered new customers 20 pounds ($36.51) off their first journey.
Reactions from Germans on Twitter overwhelmingly supported the smartphone app companies, with one user tweeting that she joined Uber because of Wednesday's protests.
"What you are seeing today is an industry that has not faced competition for decades," Uber's Regional General Manager for Western Europe, Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, told Reuters. "Now finally we are seeing competition from companies such as Uber which is bringing choice to customers."
Uber chief executive officer Kalanick last week announced US$1.2 billion in new funding, valuing the company at US$18.2 billion, one of the highest valuations ever for a Silicon Valley startup.
But it has faced a series of hurdles from the beaches of Miami to the piazzas of Rome.
Ordinances keep it out of cities such as Las Vegas and Miami while in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Uber and similar companies have faced lawsuits from taxi companies hoping to keep the new competition out.
Taxi drivers in France kicked off their protest on Wednesday morning by teaming up in large numbers to slow traffic to a snail's pace on major motorway access routes into the capital.
Adding to the gridlock, a strike at the SNCF state railway company over planned reforms reduced high-speed TGV and Intercity services by as much as 50%, while international rail links were also reduced by about 30%.
Taxis were also striking in Madrid and Barcelona. The two biggest taxi unions in Madrid, who represent around 90% of cabs in the capital, had called for a 24-hour strike from 6 in the morning.
Spain's Ministry of Public Works has warned that companies or individuals offering Uber-type services faced fines of up to 6,000 euros, while users could be fined up to 600 euros. The ministry has not specifically named Uber, which is operating in Barcelona but not Madrid.
Neelie Kroes, the European Union commissioner in charge of digital and telecoms policy, said responding to companies like Uber with strikes was pointless.
"We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence," she said in a blog published on Wednesday.
"If we don't use digital technology then millions of jobs will simply move elsewhere and Europeans will get angry that they are denied the conveniences that people in Asia and Australia and America and Africa take for granted."
It was an argument that was not likely to sway taxi drivers around Europe, however.
"It's just not fair that somebody can come in and start taking our business just because multi-billionaires are running the company," said one London black cab driver who gave his name only as Gary.
"We've been going for hundreds and hundreds of years with a perfectly good service, why has it got to change?"