Image via flickr/jean pierre gallot
Taxi drivers pretty much hate Uber. The analog and digital transportation services' battle for who gets to haul our asses around town came to a head this morning in Paris, when the fight got physical. A group of angry cabbies attacked one of the rideshare startup's vehicles while a passenger was in it, reportedly slashing a tire, spitting on the car, and smashing the window to try to get inside.
Got attacked in an @uber by cab drivers on strike near Paris airport: smashed windows, flat tires, vandalized vehicle and bleeding hands.— Kat Borlongan (@KatBorlongan) January 13, 2014
Uber later confirmed the attack and condemned the violence. But in reality, the outburst probably was a boon for the startup, which never misses the chance to cash in on free publicity.
“Today’s incident will certainly not tempt Parisians into choosing a taxi for their next ride," an Uber spokesperson said.
The company takes the old axiom "any press is good press" to heart. It never seems to go more than a few months without landing in the headlines for something or other, not infrequently for publicity stunts like delivering free ice cream, Christmas trees, and kittens in its branded cars.
But the best kind of press for the combative startup are stories like today's, narratives that paint a picture of the startup as the Scrappy Innovative Disruptor going up against the Bureaucratic Man—in this case, cab monopolies that have been enjoying an uncompetitive market for ages and are cozying up to politicians' to keep it that way.
Giving the story something of a Hollywood flare, one of the passengers in the car—who incidentally is the cofounder of a startup—was hit with a shard of glass from the broken window and started bleeding. "Attackers tried to get in the car but our brave @uber driver maneuvered us to safety," she tweeted.
The Parisian cab business is just the latest Goliath to Uber’s David. Claiming rideshare apps are unfair competition, some taxi drivers in the city have gone on strike and were protesting outside the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport airport this morning. You can’t blame them for being pissed. Uber doesn't have to pay the hefty taxi license fees they do, so they’re making a bigger profit for essentially the same service, for one thing.
For another, the app-based car service is super popular in Paris, not least because the city strictly regulates the number of taxis it can have, which means it can take forever to get a cab. Uber, which isn't technically a taxi, can then swoop in and pick up the slack.
But hey, it's the free market right?
Bearing all that in mind, the French government actually threw the taxi industry a bone last month. It decreed that on-demand car services have to wait 15 minutes after an order to pick passengers up—a sort of handicap for Uber to level the playing field. But cabbies want more; they want 30 minutes and a minimum fare of the equivalent of about 60 bucks.
The clashes in US cities are similar. Miami and Las Vegas want minimum fares; Colorado's trying to keep Uber away from hotels and bars; New York City all but got the company shut down for violating regulations; and the lawsuits are piling up.
But the more cities try to fight the popular service, the more it boosts its image. Uber's very good at spinning such sagas in its favor, with more than a little Silicon Valley smug. When policymakers in Washington, DC tried to wield city regulations to block the startup, a social media-fueled backlash—#UberDCLove—not only got the legislation stopped, but reversed to lay out a legal framework for e-hailing rides.
"Uber riders are the most affluent, influential people in their cities," CEO Travis Kalanick told INC in a feature on the startup. "When we get to a critical mass, it becomes impossible to shut us down."
I don't blame taxi drivers for trying to hold on to their revenue streams as long as possible, even if digital disruption is inevitable. But folks that go to ridiculous extremes to block the popular newcomer are only hurting themselves. Lobbying local government to protect your own financial hide smacks of crony capitalism, and you better believe Uber will ride that angle hard. As far as attacking a car as it's trying to transport a passenger? That just makes you look like a dick.