Uber saw the number of new customers signing up to its London service jump to record levels on Wednesday, as cab drivers across Europe went on strike in protest of the taxi hailing app.
Uber said there has been an 850 percent increase in sign-ups compared to last Wednesday and accused London taxi union the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association of being stuck in the “dark ages”. It called on the union to cancel the “irresponsible” strike.
In an attempt to placate London’s protesting taxi drivers, Uber has announced its plans to open its app based service up to black cabs, adding that it is a “shame to bring London to a standstill”.
As well as Uber services, customers will now be able to hail a black cab from the app, which Uber claims is “good for riders, good for London cabbies, and good for the local economy”.
Taxi drivers in London begun their protest Wednesday afternoon, creating gridlock around central tourist hotspots Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square over claims Uber is in breach of taxi meters regulation.
Taxi drivers insist that because the Uber system calculates its fare according to distance and time, it is the same as a meter, which only black cabs are regulated to use. London’s transport regulator, Transport for London (TfL) has asked the High Court to give a final decision on whether Uber is breaking the law or not.
Black cab driver and representative of trade union Unite, Peter Rose, who is helping to lead protests in London said Uber’s announcement is clearly a “deflection” and doubted there would be any real take-up of the offer.
“There is no history of cab drivers using private hire firms. It isn’t about Uber, this is about TfL. TfL should be acting like a proper regulator,” he said.
However, Jo Bertram, general manager at Uber U.K. and Ireland, told CNBC that she thought that it seemed a “shame to bring London to a standstill while undermining the legal process that is ongoing.”
“In our view, the Uber app on a drivers’ smart phone is not a taxi meter, the private hire laws were written in 1998 before smart phones were even invented. TfL have also shared their view its not a taxi meter,” she added.
“Of course this technology needs to be safe and legal, but the High Court is set to decide on that, and it’s difficult to see what this (industrial) action will do except cause misery for Londoners and visitors to the capital,” director of strategy and policy at business group London First, John Dickie said.
Taxi drivers across Europe are taking part in an organised protest against Uber, claiming the service is an unfair competitor.
Parisian cabbies argue the 200,000 euro ($270, 628) license fee they pay each year is unreasonable when compared to Uber’s meager 150 euro registration fee. The strike has been dubbed operation “escargot” as drivers plan to drive around the city at a “snail’s pace”.
Uber’s invite to London taxi drivers has so far received a “huge amount of interest”, Bertram said and the firm hope to build up the scale of the project as quickly as possible.
London black cab drivers will use their own meters to calculate the fare and Uber will charge percent commission for booking and payment processing and taxis, the group said.
In Milan, protests are underway and Uber is offering a 20 percent discount on passengers journeys in response to the strikes.
Minister of Transport Maurizio Lupi has questioned the legality of the taxi app as only drivers with a license can operate in the country and two Uber cars have already been confiscated by the police this year.
Benedetta Arese Lucini, managing director of Uber Italy said she was not concerned about the outlawing of Uber in Italy.
“We are suggesting a new way forward, that is what the market is asking for. Taxi drivers and government representatives haven’t understood the service we are offering,” Lucini told CNBC.
“Our fees are only payable by credit card, so all payments are traced and there can be no tax evasion and also the journey is traced through a map that is emailed to the customer so that they can check the route,” she added.
Additional reporting by Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli.