* Silicon Valley firm's app rattles London taxi drivers
* Cabbies say they are fighting for their livelihoods
* Drivers plan protest that may paralyse central London
* Uber says its app complies with all London regulations
By Jack Stubbs
LONDON, June 6 They have been the kings of the
British capital's roads for over a century but now the often
opinionated drivers of London's iconic black taxi cabs are
battling a high-technology rival that threatens their dominance.
In their sights is Uber Technologies Inc., a San
Francisco-based company whose application lets people summon
rides at the touch of a smartphone button and uses satellite
navigation to calculate the distance for fares.
The drivers of black taxis say Uber, backed by investors
such as Goldman Sachs and Google, is being used
as a taximeter and thus contravenes a 1998 British law reserving
the right to use a meter for licensed black taxis.
Uber says the application used by their drivers complies
with all local regulations and that they are being targeted
because of their success in winning customers.
A variety of apps are available for summoning both black
cabs - bulbous, purpose-built vehicles which offer a roomier
passenger compartment than most normal cars - and unmetered
private-hire taxis known as minicabs.
But the power of Uber and the growing popularity of its app
have so rattled the black cab drivers that they have pushed
London's transport regulator to ask the High Court to rule on
the legality of such applications.
They also plan to converge near Trafalgar Square on June 11
for a protest that could paralyse central London, following
strikes and other actions by drivers in cities such as Paris and
"We understand it's a competitive market place, but they're
not playing by the rules," Jim Thompson, a taxi driver of 30
years, told Reuters during a coffee and cigarette break in the
financial district. "We're fighting for our livelihoods here. No
one's going to take it lying down."
Since Uber's foundation in 2009 by two U.S. technology
entrepreneurs, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, the darling of
Silicon Valley has entered over 70 cities, expanding from
California to Washington, Tokyo and now London.
Colleagues in the U.S. capital are suffering, said Thompson.
"I was over in Washington last year and it slaughtered them," he
said. "You just can't compete."
Behind the debate over what constitutes a taximeter, Uber
has touched a raw nerve in London because it brings home the
threat to one of the city's most visible trades from
To win the coveted green badge giving the right to drive a
black taxi, drivers have to study for up to five years to pass
the "the Knowledge". This is a rigorous test requiring
encyclopaedic knowledge of London's roads and its landmarks -
from the Tower of London to the site of Karl Marx's grave -
although many drivers now use satellite-navigation devices.
First introduced as motorised competitors to the horse-drawn
carriage in 1897 under Queen Victoria, there are now over 25,000
hackney carriage taxis in London making more than 300,000 trips
The cabs, which are now made by China's Zhejiang Geely
Holding Group, can be flagged down on the street and
use a meter to calculate fares while London's 44,000 minicabs
must be pre-booked with a set fare and destination.
Uber says its minicabs arrive in five minutes in central
London and it offers numerous incentives, including a free first
journey to attract new users and allowing customers to see the
driver's name and photo before they arrive.
"You really feel you are the customer and not someone who's
just getting a lift," said David Wetherill, an Uber customer in
London. "It's like the difference between staying in a budget
hotel and a five-star."
But Uber also provides an application for its drivers to
calculate the cost of each journey by monitoring the distance
and time travelled. The London taxi-drivers' union says this
amounts to a taximeter and that the regulator, Transport for
London (TfL), is failing to enforce its own rules with a firm
that has powerful investors.
"TfL is scared by Uber's big-money backers like Goldman
'Government' Sachs and Google," said Steve McNamara, general
secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association. "Something
is very, very wrong here."
Tfl says its provisional view is that the use of smart
phones does not constitute a taximeter but has invited the High
Court to rule on the issue.
Uber is being targeted because of its success and out of
fear of its technological strength, said Jo Bertram, Uber
general manager for Britain and Ireland. "We're bringing more
competition and we think that's good for everyone," she told
Reuters at the company's new offices in north London.
"There's Uber being incredibly successful and there's also
the march of technology," she said. "We're seen as one and the
But Uber isn't to everyone's taste. There have already been
protests against Uber in both the United States and continental
Europe, and one of its cars was attacked near Paris earlier this
year. Not all appear to have helped the drivers' cause: when the
Milan taxi union staged a strike in March, Uber enticed stranded
customers by offering a 20 percent discount.
The company has also faced complaints from rival taxi firms
in the United States while in France a law requiring all its
drivers to wait 15 minutes before responding to a booking was
briefly introduced and then suspended.
In London, about 10,000 taxis are expected to cause gridlock
at next week's protest.
"What else are we meant to do?" said cabbie Thompson,
sheltering from the rain in the back of a taxi, drinking instant
coffee from polystyrene cups with three colleagues who between
them have over 150 years' experience driving taxis in London.
"It's do or die in this world."
(Additional reporting by Dominic Elliot. Editing by Guy
Faulconbridge and David Stamp)