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Who would have thought that London’s licensed black cab drivers and their European counterparts in cities like Milan, Madrid and Lyon would take to the streets to protest the expansion of taxi ride-sharing app, Uber, as they did in early June, daring consumers to choose sides as parts of cities were shut down. Uber, which links passengers with drivers of private vehicles, has expanded globally into more than 100 cities in 36 countries and attracted heavy investment. The broader issue here is how new technology is disruptive, with licensed taxi drivers resentful of the emerging band of freelance cabs using GPS. Spotlighted too is the future of urban transport. Environmentalists have saluted the increasingly popular smartphone car-paging service and similar services as the start of a reduced need for private car ownership.
Uber radiates convenience. Monitoring ride trends, it can smartly allocate cars in places of high demand, and by connecting with peoples’ smartphones, it has automated the paying process, so users just leave the car after their Uber ride, dispensing with credit cards and tipping.
Not surprisingly, it has been suggested that services like Uber may reduce the need for private vehicle ownership and so reduce the cost of urban living, at least leading to more ‘car-lite’ households who get by with just one car. Some experts believe that the increased use of ride-sharing services could also spawn renewed interest in and funding for public transport, because people generally use taxis in combination with other forms of transport.
Susan Shaheen who leads the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that car-sharing services like Zipcar and bike-sharing services have already led to a significant net reduction of car ownership among users.
Writing in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo even suggested that “If Uber and its ride-sharing competitors succeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see many small and midsize cities become transportation nirvanas on the order of Manhattan — places where forgoing car ownership isn’t just an outré lifestyle choice, but the preferred way to live”.
Uber has been accused of everything from a reckless attitude to safety to putting cab drivers out of work. There was even an #Ubergeddon hashtag on Twitter and a PR drive by Uber which saw it launch UberTAXI as another transport choice within its Uber service allowing users of the same app to ‘hail’ a London black taxi too. Uber is currently embroiled in legal action in several European cities such as Berlin and Brussels which have attempted to ban it.
The intensified competition in the taxi market is enticing to many consumers, however. Chris Fox, who was caught up in the central London traffic congestion during the recent protests, commented: “I’m glad that more taxi apps have arrived. In the end, everyone knows taxis overcharge you.”
Ironically, the strikes provided Uber with much free publicity and more customers including a reported 850% increase in people signing up for the service in the UK over a week in early June. The app is rated fifth on the Google Play store for phones using the Android operating system, according to App Annie, which tracks smartphone downloads. Meanwhile, since the protests were first announced in May, Uber now ranks as the most downloaded travel app on Apple’s UK store.