By Kim Lyons
To earn his license to drive one of London’s famed black car taxis, Ian Beetlestone had to memorize 20,000 streets in a 6-mile radius and undergo a rigorous training process, learning the famed Knowledge of London in a process that spanned several years, as anyone who seeks to drive a taxi in London does.
So when American ridesharing company Uber tried to move into the U.K. city with a smartphone application that connects riders with drivers using their own cars, taxi drivers and train workers across Europe united in protest Wednesday, refusing to pick up fares and driving slowly to create widespread gridlock.
“It’s not just about Uber, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Beetlestone said. Taxis are the only ride-for-hire entities allowed to use a meter in London, and the primary argument against Uber is that its smartphone app behaves like a meter, calculating the fare that riders pay based on distance of a trip.
Uber and other ridesharing companies popping up around the globe have yet to move into an area where they did not face significant resistance from regulators and established taxi companies.
Exactly what form that resistance has taken has varied.
American cities and states have handled the disruptive technology in different fashion.
Virginia earlier this month issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber and Lyft, and last week Pennsylvania slapped daily fines of $1,000 on each company for operating in Pittsburgh.
Even though Colorado’s governor recently signed legislation to allow rideshare companies to operate, taxi and insurance officials resisted Lyft and Uber when they first arrived.
The European protests this week may have proved a boon for Uber; the company reported downloads of its smartphone app were up 850 percent over the previous Wednesday.
“Europeans overwhelmingly voted with their fingertips by riding Uber, downloading Uber and standing up for more consumer choice,” the San Francisco company said in a statement.
Whether or not the protests boost the ridesharing company’s profile in Europe, the struggle in Pennsylvania continues about how to respond to the effort to change how transportation services are provided.
The investigation and enforcement division of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, has cited 23 rideshare drivers in Pittsburgh for failing to have required commercial certification.
It also has proposed additional fines of $1,000 for each driver and possible revocation of their vehicle registrations.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who openly supports rideshare companies co-existing with taxis in the city, said the recent PUC enforcement actions surprised him, especially after he and PUC Chairman Robert Powelson agreed there was a need for viable transportation options.
“What the PUC should be doing is allowing the services to operate under temporary rules while a long-term solution is identified,” Peduto said in an email.
He added he has had a number of good experiences with the services and has followed rideshare trends closely. “Pittsburgh needs to be one of the world-class cities offering ridesharing,” he said.
Henry Posner, chairman of Green Tree, Pa.-based Railroad Development Corp., has extensive experience with transportation systems in Europe and the U.S. While public transportation is much more central to daily life in European cities than it is in most American cities, Pennsylvania’s transportation regulations need to be overhauled to reflect the current reality, he said.
“State lawmakers and regulators don’t know when to get out of the way,” Posner said. “The best example is the Liquor Control Board. How many other states don’t trust its citizens to make decisions about purchases of wine? We pride ourselves on small changes, but the rest of the world is changing faster than we are.”
Dave Sutton is a spokesman for Who’s Driving You, a public safety initiative of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, a Maryland-based trade group representing 1,100 taxi companies.
The group’s primary position is that rideshare companies avoid regulation to the public’s detriment, skirting rules requiring commercial insurance, and painting taxi companies as outdated monopolies.
“The biggest myth, or stereotype, is this idea that taxi companies are an entrenched industry,” Sutton said. “Uber likes to promote this idea of a big conglomerate when the reality is the opposite: Most taxi companies are small mom-and-pop companies that follow the rules.”
Yellow Cab, the Pittsburgh area’s largest taxi company, does not quite fit the profile of a mom-and-pop business. Its parent company, Pittsburgh Transportation Group, is owned by Illinois-based Veolia Transportation, which bills itself as the “largest private provider of multiple modes of transportation in North America.”
When Lyft and Uber moved into Pittsburgh earlier this year, Yellow Cab was one of the staunchest opponents. But President Jamie Campolongo said he has refocused his efforts on his company’s upcoming app-based transportation service, Yellow X, which he expects to release in July.
The PUC fines may be small change for well-heeled companies such as Lyft and Uber, the latter valued at $18 billion, but they send a strong message, he said.
“I think it undermines the confidence of people who drive for them,” Campolongo said. “I think at some point they have to step up and address the insurance issue. If they start getting tangled up in lawsuits, they’ll burn through all that cash pretty quick.”
The main point of contention in London is the distinction between the black car taxis, which anyone can hail on a street and which use meters to determine fares, and minicabs, with which passengers call a central dispatcher to obtain a ride.
Uber’s app circumvents both processes, Beetlestone said. Transport for London, the regulatory body, is seeking a ruling from the high court to determine Uber’s status. Lyft is not yet operating in Europe.
Whatever the outcome, Beetlestone was heartened by Wednesday’s action. “It was good for the trade itself to see that it still cared about this, that we were all able to come together.”