Tradition has been fighting a losing war with technology for millennia. But rarely have tradition's defeats been as swift and as public as what took place on London's Trafalgar Square.
Thousands of drivers of London's iconic black taxis – a mainstay of the city's streets since the start of the 20th century – flooded the centre-city square on Wednesday to demonstrate their anger at the business they've lost to a popular smartphone app. By slowing traffic in downtown London to a crawl for an hour, they hoped to convince local authorities to bar Uber, an app that connects users to the nearest available cab driver at a fraction of the cost and wait associated with the heavily regulated taxis.
While the Licensed Taxi Driver's Association's case against Uber – which contends the smartphones Uber drivers use to bill customers are illegal taximeters – has been referred to the city's High Court, London commuters voted immediately with their smartphones. Uber experienced its busiest day of sign-ups since launching in London two years ago, reporting an 850-per-cent surge in new memberships compared with an average day.
"Afternoon traffic was very bad, but the office said many people signed up because of the demonstration. Many people had never heard of Uber, but have heard about it now," said Bereket, a 42-year-old father of one who for the last month has been picking up Uber clients in a rented Toyota Prius. He asked that his last name not be used, saying he had been harassed by drivers of official taxis. "The black cabs are an icon for London, but they don't move with the technology," he added. "You can't call them to your home. You have to find them on the street, and they don't work long hours."
Similar protests by taxi drivers left other European cities in rush-hour gridlock in an effort to hold back the Uber tide, which has now washed over 128 cities in 37 countries. Airport roads were blocked in France (where commuters also had to put up with a rail strike), taxis massed in front of Olympic stadium in Berlin, and Madrid taxi drivers smashed in the windshields of cars they suspected of working for private car services.
Transport for London, the city's transportation regulator, has already indicated its support for Uber, though TFL said it would defer to the High Court decision. Many of the slogans shouted Wednesday by the angry drivers on Trafalgar Square were aimed at the city's populist mayor, Boris Johnson, who is seen as anti-union.
The threat to traditional cab companies is obvious. While long lineups for a taxi are common at many of Europe's tourist sites and transit hubs – and London's black cabs can be hailed only by stepping into a street and waiting for one – an Uber car can be summoned in a matter of minutes, at a preset fare, and a five-star system telling the client what previous passengers thought of the driver.
London's official taxi companies counter that the Uber driver may be untrustworthy or simply not know where he or she is going. Drivers of the city's black taxis have all passed "The Knowledge," an exhaustive exam that takes years to prepare for and requires a prospective driver to all but memorize the city atlas.
But even where traditional cab companies have had their way – Uber is barred in Belgium, and faces legal challenges in Toronto, as well as several American cities – riders have continued to use the service. San Francisco-based Uber can likely afford the fines it has been threatened with: the four-year-old upstart was recently valued at $18.2-billion (U.S.).
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 elsewhereand Europeans will get angry that they are denied the conveniences that people in Asia and Australia and America and Africa take for granted."