The war on Uber continues. French taxi-drivers threaten ‘escargot operation’ in protest.


Taxi drivers protest in Milan, May 21, 2014. (Federico Ferramola/AP)

Update: Early Wednesday, Uber launched UberTaxi, which allows users to call London’s black cabs through the Uber smartphone app. It will follow the same fare rates that apply to cabs and allows for tipping. UberTaxi joins uberX, EXEC and LUX cars as Uber’s fourth service offered in the city. Another app, Hailo, also allows users to hail black cabs, but London taxi drivers protested when Hailo recently started allowing private vehicles on its platform, suggesting cabbies won’t be won over by Uber’s new offering.

The war on Uber, dubbed “Ubergeddon” by the Wall Street Journal, is spreading in Europe.

More than 30,000 cab and limo drivers have promised to bring traffic to a standstill in major European cities on Wednesday to protest Uber, the ridesharing service that has disrupted the traditional taxi model in the United States and beyond.

Good luck to anyone trying to get in or out of the Charles de Gaulle and Orly Airports. If drivers in France make good on their threat, the highway that circles Paris may be ensnared in what French cabbies called “escargot operations,” with 3,000 drivers moving at a snail’s pace in protest.

Drivers in Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Hamburg and Lisbon also say they plan to converge in urban centers to tie-up traffic and stage demonstrations. Bloomberg has details if you’re overseas and looking to avoid the potential mess.

“European cities have tended to regulate taxi drivers much more than the U.S.,” Charles Lichfield, an analyst at Eurasia Group in London, told Bloomberg. “I do think the protests have a better chance of succeeding.”

Uber, a San Francisco start-up, has faced regulatory hurdles and opposition from taxi associations in the United States as well as in Europe, where it has expanded to 20 cities.

Taxi drivers are angry at regulations that apply to them, but not Uber. In London, cabbies complain that calculating fares with a smartphone app is tantamount to running a taxi meter, which only the city’s black taxis can do legally.

Licensing is another issue — Uber drivers are unlicensed while traditional taxi drivers pay up to $270,000 for one.

But cabbies aren’t just targeting Uber. They are more upset about what they say is an outdated regulatory scheme that stifles competition, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Taxi drivers view Uber as a threat to their livelihood — but the conflict between disruptive innovation and industries being disrupted has a long history.

Roman historian Pliny the Elder reported the tale of a radical inventor who brought a new type of unbreakable glass before the Emperor Augustus. The ruler feared the invention would undermine the value of his gold and silver, and had the innovator executed. What we now call “flexible glass” only reappeared sometime in the past 100 years.

In modern times, innovators aren’t executed — but the legal and regulatory gauntlet they must run can leave their ideas dead in the water. That’s what almost happened to FM radio in the mid-20th century, when it was fought by AM radio operators such as RCA, and to the music-sharing pioneer Napster at the turn of the millennium.

At present, it’s the sharing economy that threatens to disrupt traditional travel businesses, be it hotels threatened by Airbnb or cabbies angry about Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

“Black cabs have been a symbol of London for many decades, known across the world. But symbols, no matter how iconic, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of innovation,” Simon Walker of Britain’s Institute of Directors told the BBC. “Uber and its rival apps are an example of the positive disruption new technology brings, offering consumers new choices about how to travel. … The battle over taxi apps gets to the heart of what creative destruction means. As a nation, we have to decide whether we want to open ourselves up to more choice and competition, or protect existing industries at the expense of consumers.”

Uber doesn’t mind the publicity.

“If anything, it’s going to make Uber even more visible, and make a lot of people realize that they now have choices that they didn’t have before,” Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, Uber’s general manager of Western and Northern Europe, told the Wall Street Journal.

The attempt to block Uber’s progress has been underway in the United States for some time. This week, Uber said it would keep operating despite a cease and desist order from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Earlier last week, the company said it would operate services in Miami and Austin despite being banned in both cities.

Uber was valued at $18.2 billion on Friday — higher than half of the established companies that make up the S&P 500, suggesting some are very confident the company will prevail.

Related: Wars on private taxis and Tesla show transportation ripe for disruption

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.

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