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Cabbies snarl traffic across Europe to protest Uber

Drivers say the service is unfairly taking away customers; protests a sign of technological upheaval in travel industry

Cabbies and train workers walked off the job Wednesday in several European cities, leaving traffic snarled in London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere as they protested ride-sharing apps and other changes to the travel industry that they say could endanger passengers and give untested upstarts an unfair advantage.

Travelers in France faced the brunt of the strike, with the Paris commuter rails and the national train network cutting down to one-third of their usual capacity as taxis refused to take fares and blocked major highways leading into the French capital by traveling at a snail's pace. Taxi drivers staged similar protests in London and Berlin. Apparently timed for the strike, the hail-by-phone car service Uber released an app directed at London customers — and in Paris it offered free rides to some customers.

"It means that the message must be heard, it means that there's something wrong in Europe," said Salem Ferrari, a 34-year-old Paris taxi driver who has been in the business for more than three years.

About 1,000 Berlin cabdrivers were also expected to protest against taxi-fetching app companies — including San Francisco-based Uber — between noon and 2 p.m., congesting roads between the Olympic Stadium and Tegel Airport, Berlin Central Station and Südkreuz Station, according to city police.

Taxi drivers were also striking in Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid’s two biggest taxi unions, which represent around 90 percent of cabs in the capital, called for a 24-hour strike starting at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

In London, up to 12,000 taxi drivers planned to tie up the streets around Trafalgar Square, just a stone's throw from Prime Minister David Cameron's official residence, starting at 2 p.m.

The protests reflect growing upheaval in the travel and transport industry, largely caused by technologies that have perhaps made things easier for travelers but have also caused workers to voice concerns about safety and their jobs.

"The fact is that digital technology is changing many aspects of our lives," said Neelie Kroes, the European Union vice president in charge of digital affairs. "We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence."

Services such as Uber and Chauffeur-Privé, the crux of Wednesday's taxi strike, allow passengers to hail a ride from a mobile app. Taxi drivers, who sometimes pay tens of thousands of dollars for their commercial licenses, say the situation is unfair because drivers of the private services do not face the same training or licensing requirements. Uber has been banned in Brussels and has come under scrutiny in Spain, but the European Union is pushing for acceptance, saying the service benefits consumers.

Uber, valued last week at $18.2 billion just four years after its launch and backed by investors such as Goldman Sachs Group and Google, contends that its smartphone application complies with local regulations and that it is being targeted because of its success in winning customers.

Uber has expanded rapidly since it was launched in 2010 by two U.S. technology entrepreneurs, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, and now operates in 128 cities across 37 countries.

"What you are seeing today is an industry that has not faced competition for decades. Now, finally, we are seeing competition from companies such as Uber, which is bringing choice to customers," Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, Uber's regional general manager for Western Europe, told Reuters.

But Uber and other ride request services have faced a series of hurdles, from the beaches of Miami to the piazzas of Rome.

Ordinances keep it out of cities such as Las Vegas and Miami. In Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Uber and similar companies have faced lawsuits from taxi companies hoping to keep the new competition out.

Taxi drivers also protested against Uber in Los Angeles on Tuesday, but those protests drew a much smaller response.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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