What the U.S. Can Learn From Europe's All-Out Uberwar

European labor strikes may not win much for traditional taxi drivers—across the Atlantic or in the States.

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Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Labor protests are such a regular part of life in Europe that it's hard to know what to make of the widespread taxi strikes aimed at the ride-hailing service Uber today. Even as taxi drivers planned a protest in Paris, for example, French rail workers were conducting a strike over a railway-system reorganization. London railway station workers enjoyed a similar strike last month. Milan did these same Uber strikes last month.

In fact, while strikes against employers (economic strikes) have fallen dramatically in Europe since the 1980s, according to one study, general strikes over government policies have risen across the continent (even accounting for perma-striking Greece).

By and large, their counterparts in the U.S. have not taken the leap from sulk to strike. One exception is Boston, where taxi drivers circled Beantown Uber HQ one day last month, clogging traffic. While Boston Globe columnist Tom Keane thinks the city will fight to protect its monopoly on taking people places, Uber went ahead and soft-launched UberBOAT, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants a rideshare regulation resolution by July.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

So whose approach is more effective: Continental or Colonial?

In London, striking taxis didn't prevent anyone from hailing a car late in the afternoon. (The new UberTaxi service launched today was harder to come by.) In fact, the strike had the opposite effect on app-based ride-hail demand. In Britain, Uber enjoyed an 850 percent increase in user registrations during the strike, according to the New York Times. In Paris, Uber offered costumers a 50 percent discount.

Whether Parisian strikes might work any better against Chauffeur-Privé (French Uber, basically) isn't clear, but the numbers would seem to argue against it. There may be as many as 10,000 ride-share car and motorcycle drivers operating in France today—a figure smaller than but on the same order as France's 55,000 professional licensed taxi drivers.

If strikes aren't the way to go about stopping hailing apps—assuming that you want to do that—is there another option? Or at least a solution to keep the peace between traditional taxi drivers and people who put pink mustaches on their cars?

"Not really," says Daniel Harsha, associate director of communications for the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard. "The economic disruption is so new. Cities are still trying to figure out how to balance it."

Luke MacGregor/Reuters 

According to the Ash Center, most U.S. municipalities haven't gone the route of issuing cease-and-desist letters to so-called transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft (which haven't stopped these services any better than strikes anyway). Cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle—and states including California and Arizona—have passed or proposed measures to reclassify and regulate hailing-app services. Other municipalities are taking a more hostile posture. 

North Carolina is taking a novel approach. In 2013, the state legislature passed a wide-ranging but ambiguous restriction prohibiting cities from regulating ride-sharing. "Nothing in this section shall authorize a city to regulate and license digital dispatching services for prearranged transportation services for hire," reads the relevant section of the law in its entirety.

While the bill preserves that regulatory right for the state, the law itself says that it aims to "stimulate job creation" and "eliminate unnecessary regulation." North Carolina may simply want to leave Uber alone.

Cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh (where Uber currently operates) preserve the right to regulate many aspects of "passenger vehicle for hire" service: traditional taxis. Some of these regulations also apply to the so-called digital-dispatch services (a term that is not defined by law). Setting vehicle age limits is one example.

But cities in North Carolina cannot force Uber drivers to be licensed taxi operators, much less ban Uber outright. That seems to be bringing taxi drivers, city officials, and ride-sharing services to the table, at least in Charlotte. While that's not the answer that taxi drivers worldwide are hoping to hear, it may be the best model for reaching a resolution yet.

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.