Taxi protests against Uber brings Brussels European Quarter to a halt
Taxi services in Brussels are facing competition from new entrant Uber. Are taxi drivers protests likely to be effective in containing the challenge, asks Colin Mackay.
Many cities in Europe have already come to terms with the Uber phenomenon. Indeed, the company's founders claim to have come up with the idea following difficulties they experienced in getting taxis in Paris.
However, the Uber offering divides opinion. Users seem to love it, and the company recently marked its one millionth passenger trip. It plays well with the smartphone generation.
Access to real-time updates on car location and availability, transparency of pricing and a low cost compared to legacy services have gained it a strong following in a number of cities.
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However, it has not been without teething problems. Since it launched in Europe in 2011, a number of cities have questioned the legitimacy of the service, debating whether it is an electronic application or a transport service.
It has faced protests and legal challenges in Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands as well as Belgium. The company recently had to suspend its basic UberPOP service in Paris, although it continues to operate in Brussels.
Perhaps because it is relatively small as European capitals go, Brussels has come somewhat late to Uber. Although UberPOP has been around for a while, authorities have hedged their opinions on the legal status of the service. Local taxi drivers, however, have been much more forthright, having reportedly threatened those they have identified as Uber drivers and even their passengers.
Uber clearly do not see this risk as an idle threat. Its recent press conference, for the launch of the new 'Uber X' service in Belgium, was by invitation only. In order to avoid protests from local taxi drivers, the venue for the event was only released to pre-approved journalists one hour before the start.
Uber's willingness to launch new services in Belgium seems to suggest they see a long-term market in the country. However, local taxi drivers are not impressed. On Thursday, they set about reminding the residents of Brussels how effective a protest group they can be.
Depending on the source, anywhere between 400 and 1200 taxi drivers brought central Brussels to a standstill, blocking main roads, closing many of the tunnels on the Brussels ring and converging on the Schuman roundabout, centre of the Brussels European quarter.
They claim that Uber circumvents Belgian regulations on safety and insurance, and that drivers pay no tax or social security on their earnings. For its side, Uber claims that existing taxis have an unchallenged monopoly that they exploit, and this is why the service is increasingly popular in Belgium.
They may be right. It appears that, in the court of public opinion, taxi drivers may already be losing the battle. A recent survey on behalf of Belgian newspaper La Libre and Francophone broadcasters RTBF found that only seven per cent of Belgian citizens want to see Uber outlawed.
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