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European Taxi Protest: Transport Tech Upheaval

June 11, 2014

A yellow ribbon reading “Taxi on strike” is seen on a Paris taxi taking part in a demonstration near the Eiffel Tower, in Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

by Lori Hinnant

Cabbies and train workers walked off the job on Wednesday, leaving traffic snarled in some of Europe’s biggest cities, as they protested 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 down to one-third its usual capacity at the same time 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, Berlin, Barcelona and Madrid.

Commuters walk on a platform at the Gare St Lazare station in Paris, Wednesday, June 11, 2014, as French rail workers strike to protest against plans to open the railways to competition. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Taken together, the concerns reflect growing upheaval in the travel and transport industry, largely due to technologies that have made things easier for travelers but which have caused workers to voice concerns about safety — and their jobs. These are some of the changes and the debate surrounding them:

Private Car Services

Services like Uber and Chauffeur Prive, the crux of Wednesday’s taxi strike, allow passengers to hail a ride from a mobile app. Taxi drivers, who can pay tens of thousands of dollars (euros) for their medallions, complain that it’s unfair and that drivers of the private services don’t face the same training or licensing requirements. Uber has been banned in Brussels, and come under scrutiny in Spain, but the European Union is pushing for acceptance, saying it benefits consumers. Apparently timed for the strike, Uber released an app directed at London customers, offered free rides to some customers in Paris and half off in Berlin.

Automated Subways

Subway lines are increasingly run by semi-conductors, and not human conductors. Two metro lines along Paris’ Seine River are automated, but creating driverless systems required extensive negotiations with the unions, followed by an advertising campaign to persuade passengers of its safety, which included hiring musicians for two days to offer their interpretation of a song composed in honor of the computerization. About 40 supervisory jobs were available to the 250 drivers who worked on one of the lines.

Rent a Room

Airbnb pioneered the idea of linking up homeowners with travelers, allowing people to rent out a room or an entire home for considerably less than hotel rates — especially in heavily visited cities like London, Paris and New York. The company that made a commodity of couch-surfing has come under criticism from the hotel chains that are its main competitors — they are subject to health and safety inspections that people who list their homes on Airbnb don’t face. Landlords are also watching closely because subletting is often barred under leases, and city governments have filed complaints that the service could be violating local laws regulating zoning and transient housing.

Online Airline Ticket Sales

Online travel booking has devastated the jobs of travel agents. Since 2000, their numbers have been cut in half in the U.S., from about 124,000 to 64,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s projected to decline by 12 percent in the next decade. It happened with hardly a protest, largely because most travel agencies — both in Europe and the U.S. — tend to be smaller, non-unionized companies. “The fact is that digital technology is changing many aspects of our lives,” Neelie Kroes, the European Union vice president in charge of digital affairs, said of Wednesday’s protest. “We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence.”

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