PARIS — Taxi drivers across Europe went on strike for one day earlier this week to protest competition from Uber.
As a political strategy, it was a boneheaded move. Its effect was to drive even more customers into Uber’s arms, and to make taxi drivers look like petulant, technology-hating fools.
In London, as many as 10,000 of the city’s 22,000 black cabs went on strike. In Berlin, 300 of the city’s 1,000 cabbies went off the job and tried to snarl traffic.
Here in Paris, there were no cabs to be seen anywhere on the streets, though some were out creating traffic jams on major throughways. But Uber service was uninterrupted. You could still get an UberX in five or six minutes in the late afternoon. Uber not only didn’t implement surge pricing — it kept its prices at their normal levels — it was offering 50 percent discounts for anyone who used its split-fare feature, to share the cost of an Uber ride with a friend.
Traffic was bad, but not hugely worse than any other day.
As for Uber, it says it saw an 850 percent increase in new-customer signups on Wednesday, the day of the strike. No wonder people were calling the strike an “own goal” for the taxi drivers.
Taxi drivers in Europe have a lot of reasons to be angry. They’re being rapidly replaced by a service that’s just as fast but more convenient. For a visiting tourist with little command of the local language, Uber cars are easier to call — and they’re easier to pay for, since you don’t have to carry cash, worry whether the driver accepts credit cards, or wonder how much to tip. Uber cars are more modern and more comfortable, and usually cleaner. And while you may have to wait for an Uber to show up, the app tells you exactly how long you have to wait.
Meanwhile, taxi drivers are subject to onerous regulation — and sometimes crushing debt. Just to buy a taxi license here in Paris costs about 200,000 Euros (or more than $270,000), which means that to be a driver, you have to take out a huge loan, then make payments on it until you retire and can sell the license to some other driver.
So you can understand the taxi drivers’ point of view: While they’re making payments on this enormous loan and trying to stay on the right side of the law, here comes an army of competing drivers who completely bypass the usual licensing rules, have a snazzy app to ensure they’re busy all day long, and drive better cars than they do.
Bottom line: Taxi drivers need to find a better way to protest. My suggestion: Uber is not the enemy. In fact, Uber can work with taxis, as it’s doing in London.
Instead of targeting Uber, taxi drivers should take aim at the onerous regulations that tilt the playing field so harshly against taxis in many countries and cities around the world.
As for tourists in Paris? Take Uber if you like being driven around. But if you want to get where you’re going quickly, take the Métro. It’s faster, more convenient, and far less expensive than either taxis or Uber.
Disclosure: My airfare to France and hotel here were paid for by BPIFrance, a state-owned investment bank.