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Uber Defeated in Spain Thanks to Taxi Driver Protest

Uber may be one of the most popular transportation services in the world, but its not receiving a warm welcome in Spain.

Uber has stirred controversy in several American states and cities, and has had to fight even harder for its right to stay in the vehicle for hire arena of many European countries.

Spain has served as the battlefield for many of these conflicts, mostly due to the strength of its taxi unions and other workers’ organizations.

Uber Says Farewell in Barcelona Due to Government Policy Changes

No city is as emblematic of Uber’s struggle as Barcelona, where the city government and taxi unions first succeeded in banning Uber from the city in December of 2014. Since then, Uber has fought tooth and nail with city officials for the right to operate in the city, and it seemed as if they had succeeded when UberX service returned to the city in March of 2018.

However, new legislation regarding vehicles for hire has forced Uber to say farewell to Barcelona once again.  The recent policy changes require an interval of at least 15 minutes between the time when a vehicle is hired and the passenger is picked up, a stipulation that makes it nearly impossible for a company like Uber to deliver its services as intended.

In a recent blog post, Uber stated that “the obligation to wait fifteen minutes to travel in a vehicle for hire… is completely incompatible with the immediacy of services like UberX.” Spain is made up of several “communities” with varying degrees of autonomy, so the new laws only effect the region of Catalonia, where Barcelona is located.

Prior to this new legislation being put into effect, massive protests and strikes involving taxi drivers and other labor groups had already dealt a crippling blow to Uber’s ability to operate in Spain, and these demonstrations are still ongoing in Madrid. Widespread violence against Uber cars and drivers has been reported, and seven taxi drivers were recently arrested in Barcelona on charges related to attacking Uber drivers and employees of Cabify, another vehicle for hire app popular in Spain.


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                    Striking taxi drivers in Barcelona/photo credit: Albert Garcia

Protests in Spain Continue in Full Force

Due to the recent policy changes in Barcelona, taxi drivers there have little reason to continue their demonstrations. The situation in Catalonia seems to have calmed down, but in other parts of the country, angry taxi drivers are still striking and protesting in full force.

In Madrid, angry taxi drivers have focused most of their energy on making it difficult for Uber drivers to pick up passengers at Madrid’s busy Barajas Airport, and a botched attempt to block a major road leading to the airport led to a demonstrating taxi driver being hit and seriously injured by a car. He is currently in critical condition.

As the strikes in Madrid drag on, continuing to disrupt traffic and making it increasingly difficult for business to carry on as usual in Spain’s capital, the conflict is becoming increasingly politicized. Conservative politicians in Madrid are using the new laws in Catalonia as another opportunity to paint the Catalan region as filled with overzealous radicals.

Angel Garrido, the regional premier of Madrid and a member of the conservative Popular Party (PP), has made it abundantly clear to the striking drivers that he will not support any legislation aimed at taking down companies such as Uber and Cabify, and finds the new laws that have been passed in Catalonia to be absurd.

On the radio network, COPE Garrido blasted Catalan politicians for the recent decision, claiming that anywhere putting such strict restrictions on vehicle for hire companies “has been heading towards the Middle Ages for years now…They are banning hotel construction, they have tourism-phobia; in Catalonia they are separatist and radical.”

Taxi Drivers Struggle to Keep Up with the Competition

Most of the general Spanish public seems to understand the frustration felt by the striking taxi drivers, but they are hesitant to give them their full support.

Alejandro Millas, a poet and recording artist from Madrid, said “Cabify doesn’t pay all the fees or licensing that taxi drivers do, but they provide a better service. Unfortunately, these companies are putting taxi drivers in a very bad position… Taxi drivers work for long hours and are still not able to make enough money to support themselves. I understand why they’re mad, but they should be angrier with the government than with companies like Cabify.”

Why should their anger be directed at the government? Since the late 1990s, there has been a general trend against issuing new taxi licenses in large Spanish municipalities, including Madrid and Barcelona. This has created a huge secondary market for taxi licenses, which has caused the price of these licenses to skyrocket. Taxi licenses in Madrid are staggeringly expensive, with some going for as high as 160,000 euros.

A couple of years ago, this still might have been a worthwhile investment, as a taxi driver could make more than enough money to justify this expense in the days before Uber and Cabify. However, taxi companies are struggling to keep up with this new breed of competition, and cab drivers are feeling the strain.

It is unlikely that apps such as Uber are going to disappear anytime soon, and the ongoing conflicts over transportation apps in Spain may foreshadow similar disputes in other European countries and in the United States. Local governments, businesses and unions must work together to build a stable model that protects the rights of workers and consumers alike.


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