Claiming to be a communications platform rather than a taxi service, Uber has expanded by ignoring existing rules. This has prompted protests against the ride-hailing company by drivers, run-ins with national authorities, and new laws designed to curb its activities. The decision by Transport for London to strip Uber of its licence last week was the latest in a long line of clashes between the US firm and the establishment.
In some cities around the world where it operates, Uber is on a collision course with regulators, while in others it remains firmly outlawed. In several places, however, the $70bn (£52bn) firm is actively negotiating its return – or already back up and running.
Uber suspended operations in Austin in May 2106 after the city’s voters rejected a proposal to allow the company to self-regulate its drivers, instead of upholding stricter regulations proposed by the liberal city council that required ride-sharing drivers to pass fingerprint-based security checks.
About 10,000 drivers lost their jobs, with some moving to nearby cities where the hailing app was still allowed. But alternatives respecting the new rules, including a not-for-profit ride-sharing service, RideAustin, soon emerged and a year later Uber was allowed back into Austin after the Republican-controlled state intervened.
The state, rather than local city governments, is now responsible for regulating the ride-hailing industry, requiring local, state and national criminal background checks but not fingerprints. Now facing a competitive
market in Austin, Uber said it “knows we have a lot of work to do in the city”.
Uber suspended its activities in Bulgaria in September 2015 following mass protests and a threatened strike by Sofia’s traditional taxi operators, which accused the service of “unfair trade practices” because its drivers were working without a taxi licence, a professional driver’s licence or a defined legal status.
After a joint investigation by the tax and transport authorities, the competition commission fined Uber Bulgaria – which claimed 40,000 users – €50,000 (£44,000) for unfair competition and the supreme court banned it. New legislation requires taxi services to be provided by licensed carriers with qualified drivers hired on formal contracts.
A petition in support of Uber said the service was safe, reliable and affordable and polling has shown 77% public disapproval of the ban. But Uber shows no signs of returning to the Bulgarian market. Similar but
legal app-based services such as TaxiMe and TaxiMaxim have since emerged.
Uber pulled out of the Danish market, where it had 2,000 drivers and more than 300,000 customers, in April this year when fare meters and seat occupancy sensors became mandatory for all vehicles providing a taxi service.
Prosecutors had previously accused the company of helping its drivers – four of whom have since been fined up to DKr486,000 (£57,000) each – to break national taxi regulations during tens of thousands of rides ruled illegal. A further 1,500 drivers reportedly face similar charges.
A cheekily named alternative unrelated to Uber, Ubr City, is aiming to get round the new rules by claiming to be a courier company – passengers may only travel with “goods”, the definition of which is unclear – but it was reported to the authorities just hours after being launched.
But Uber wants to return. Its Nordic/Baltic representative Kåre Riis Nielsen said last month the company “has made mistakes” but was now “willing to play by the rules”, including ensuring its drivers declared their earnings for tax, paying them sick pay and other benefits, and adopting “digital versions” of meters and seat sensors.
Following a complaint and six-day strike by Italy’s taxi associations, a Rome court blocked the use of the Uber app in April for unfair competition. An appeal court lifted the ban in May – but only for the company’s premium Uber Black service, which uses fully-licensed professional drivers.
The company’s standard Uber X service and its Uber Pop app – for unlicensed drivers – remain outlawed. Uber Italia said it was “really happy” with the court’s decision but demanded “updated legislation so new technologies can improve citizens’ lives”.
Uber Black has only about 1,000 drivers in Rome and Milan, mainly because of the difficulty of obtaining a professional driver’s licence. Most of the app’s 139,000 riders over the last three months were foreigners. “Italy is probably the only country left without a low-cost solution,” said an Uber spokemsan Alessio Cimmino.
Uber suspended its operations in Budapest in July 2016 when the nationalist government passed legislation making it impossible for it to operate following months of persuasive protests by Hungary’s taxi drivers.
The new legislation allowed the Hungarian national communications authority to block all internet access to “illegal dispatcher services”. Companies flouting the law face repeat fines of HUF200,000 (£560) and bans of up to a year.
Uber, which claimed 1,200 drivers and 160,000 customers in Budapest, says it hopes to return to the market. Regular taxi traffic is said to have increased by 50-60% since Uber pulled out, according to one local taxi firm.
An Estonian startup, Taxify, has stepped into the gap using a GPS-based app but employing riders directly and providing company cars. Another, Hopin from Slovakia, is expected to join Taxify soon.
Uber has said it will suspend its operation in Quebec if authorities there pass new legislation requiring Uber drivers to undergo a police criminal records check and do the 35 hours of training expected of regular taxi drivers.
Uber’s general manager in Quebec, Jean-Nicolas Guillemette, said the new requirements, coming on top of what the company has called the “most restrictive and severe regulations imposed on us in north America”, would deter part-time drivers and it would stop operating in the province next month if they were implemented.
The service claims nearly a million users and about 5,000 drivers. “Trying to impose the same thing that is currently done in the old taxi industry – I don’t think it helps us to move forward and serve the population,” Guillemette said.