Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The ride-hailing company faces legal challenges across the continent.
The Uber Wars have officially arrived across Europe's cities. As the ride-sharing app (or, as is the preferred parlance these days, "transportation network company") has rolled out across the continent, its parent company has become embroiled in a complicated mesh of courtroom battles and public inquiries, with smartphone-enabled ride-hailing locked in a multi-city showdown with existing taxi services. In France, Europe's Uber wars have crossed over into actual violence, and this week even got a homophobic mini-scandal as a side order.
Uber and existing taxi services have been fighting each other on several fronts. First came Brussels, where Uber launched in February and ran into trouble pretty much straight away. By early March, two cars signed up to Uber had already been seized by police for flouting local taxi regulations. This month, a city court effectively banned Uber, threatening drivers with a €10,000 fine.
The trouble has also spread to Germany. A fortnight ago, a Berlin court placed an interim injunction brought by the Berlin Taxi Association against UberBlack, the Uber Town Car service that works by app but uses professional drivers. The injunction ruled that UberBlack's vehicles are officially car rentals rather than taxis, and that therefore they should return to a depot to wait after each trip rather than roam the streets.
Uber has said it will countersue in any legal case that could cause them to lose business. In reality, it won't need to. The plaintiff in the Berlin case says he doesn't have the means to fight legal challenges to his injunction anyway, and thus won't push for its enforcement. In the meantime, the German Taxi Federation is putting together a case against UberPOP, Uber’s newest ultra-low cost ride-sharing option. In other words, the current injunction looks like it's just round one.
Over in France, the debate has both reached the level of national politics and turned violent. In January, Parisian taxi drivers went as far as vandalizing an Uber car during a taxi strike, in one instance trying to break into a vehicle carrying a passenger. Meanwhile, MPs have just finished a two-month enquiry into taxi services across the country, including their relation to app-based services like Uber. They've recommended (but not yet implemented) protection for official taxis, rolling out plans to make them free to hire using GPS apps while forbidding this service to non-official equivalents. If this sounds harsh, a yet stricter attempt to enforce a minimum 15-minute delay between requesting a rideshare car and being picked up was overturned in court this February.
Meanwhile, Uber has hit the European news cycle again after a homophobic abuse incident in Paris on Sunday. An Uber driver picking up three students allegedly refused them with the words, "No, I don't take fags." The students tried to book another Uber car soon after – only to inadvertently call the same driver back for a fresh bout of verbal abuse and an alleged threat to smash their phones. The driver was instantly struck off Uber's roster, but while French taxi drivers aren't famed for their soft-spoken demeanor, the incident still wasn't the best advertisement for a de-regulated approach to accepting drivers.
For anyone following ride-share debates in the United States, the European battle lines being drawn will be familiar. Uber's defenders see attempts to limit their scope as the work of cartels. Freezing out Uber means slashing the potential number of vehicles for hire and keeping prices high to protect established businesses at the expense of customers. Uber’s critics see the service as a race to the bottom, a way of ducking valuable regulations in place to ensure the quality of existing taxi services, slashing working class wages and simultaneously using tax loopholes to dodge paying their fair share into the system.
The pro-Uber camp has some high-profile advocates, such as the Dutch EU Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes. In a press release following the Brussels ban, she asked:
"Are the police now going to spy on our phones to see when we are making Uber booking? Are we going to bankrupt people and send them to jail for trying to support their families with income as a driver? As if the police in Brussels don't have anything better to do."
For others, the fight is actually the other way around, with a U.S. corporation whose value approaches $3.5 billion taking on small European taxi associations who lack the means to fight back on an equal footing against legal pressure. As Germany’s Die Zeit puts it:
With huge cash reserves behind it, Uber acts like a robber baron … The Berlin taxi operator plaintiffs could try pushing through the district court’s injunction – which won’t be enforced – but Uber has announced that it will sue in all cases. If the small business owner with his four taxis and nine employees loses later, he fears massive damage claims. So Uber can just go ahead.
There’s some official backing for this attitude. Thomas Thévenoud, the MP who led France’s enquiry into taxis, has also denounced the company's stance:
The cowboy behavior of Uber, this group partly financed by Google that, through a tax optimization device, escapes taxation in France and whose economic model rests mainly on illegal taxis via the UberPOP app.
Spanish taxi drivers are now calling for an Uber ban, suggesting that this is a struggle that’s far from over. There's a degree of ugliness to the fight – what with the tire-slashing and legal saber rattling – but overall it may still do some good. By shining a light on both taxi and transportation network companies’ practices, it's at least giving people a chance to see if the claims of both camps stand up to full scrutiny.