First Click: Taxis suck, but so does Uber

February 9th, 2015

Last January, I took a cab from Charles de Gaulle airport to my apartment in Paris. It was early in the morning, and I had just arrived from New York. I considered calling an Uber, but I was exhausted and the taxi line was empty, so I hopped in. I arrived near my apartment about 45 minutes later, still in a jet-lagged daze, and handed the driver my credit card. His machine was broken, he told me, so I got out to get cash from an ATM, leaving my backpack in the car. In the ensuing two minutes, the driver reached back and stole a significant amount of money that I had stowed away in the bag — a Christmas present from my Grandma. I didn’t realize it until I began unpacking my bags a few minutes later, and there was nothing I could do. There was no app to track him, and no proof that our transaction had ever taken place.

This wasn’t the first negative experience I’d had with French taxis. Before Uber arrived, getting a taxi in Paris used to be a nightmare. Available cars would frequently refuse to take me if my destination wasn’t on their route, and if they did, they would only take cash and somehow never had correct change for my €20 note. Uber and other ride-hailing apps have completely changed the market here, but it hasn’t come without controversy.

For the past two years, the company has been locked in a battle with French regulators and taxi unions who claim that Uber is flouting the law. The conflict has erupted in strikes, protests, and roadblocks orchestrated by both taxi unions and Uber drivers alike, and there’s no clear resolution in sight. This morning, Uber shut down its Paris service and joined drivers protesting against new regulations, marking the first time that it has actively engaged in demonstrations.

a convoluted game of regulatory ping pong

The issues behind the gridlock are arcane and extremely boring, but they essentially boil down to this: taxi companies have enjoyed a monopoly in France for years, thanks to tight regulations that limited the size of their fleets, and they’re upset because Uber is eating their lunch.

It’s a convoluted game of regulatory ping pong, albeit one with an intriguing cultural meta-narrative: that of the brash, American startup storming the socialist shores of France, where labor unions and the state still reign supreme. Uber’s aggressive approach has largely paid off in other countries, but in France, it appears to have run head-first into a wall. The service is still up and running, with more than 12,000 drivers, but its future is uncertain, as the government tries to balance the demands of powerful unions and a burgeoning field of Uber-like apps.

But even after my taxi robbery, it’s still hard for me to love Uber. Through the course of covering its French operations over the past few years, I’ve spoken to many disgruntled Uber drivers who have grown frustrated with the company’s fare cuts, and there’s a growing sense here, as in the US, that they’re just cogs in a capitalist machine. Some have formed unions and others have tried to create their own Uber-like app, but they appear to have had little impact on Uber’s dominance, because there's no shortage of cheap labor. As great as the app has been for me and others in France, it's sometimes scarily easy to forget about the employee behind the wheel.

Yes, taxi unions will have to change and laws will have to adapt, but Uber likely will too. As I’ve learned over the years, France operates by its own rules and cultural norms, and despite the rise of French startups and "Brook-leen"-inspired artisanal burger chains, the Silicon Valley ideal of "disruption" is still viewed with skepticism here. It’ll take more than an app and American bravado to change that.

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