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With Uber and Cabify back in Barcelona, are taxis headed for a new standoff?

Cab drivers forced ride hailing apps out of the city in 2019 — this time, keeping the upper hand could be harder


05 June 2021 12:09 PM


Alan Rui z Terol | Barcelona

Two years ago, when Uber and Cabify suspended their services in Barcelona following a string of new regulations brought about by a week-long taxi strike, ride hailing companies conceded defeat.

"Taxis have won," said Josep Maria Goñi, the then-president of the Unauto VTC association.

But in March 2019, barely a month after saying it would leave Barcelona, the Spanish company Cabify resumed its services, promising it would abide by the new legal conditions while continuing to provide its own fleet of cars and operate under VTC licenses.

In March 2021, it was Uber’s turn to come back. But the US-based company took a different approach: instead of hiring its own drivers, it would let taxis use its software at no cost in a show of "good faith". 

With the two companies back in operation, and the vaccination campaign stoking hopes of a return to normality, the taxi sector resumed mobilizations against the ride hailing apps, which they describe as an "existential threat".

Later in March, hundreds of cab drivers protested in a slow drive through the city, which taxi associations described as "historic" and even "more massive than the 2019 strike." They repeated the action on May 20, disrupting traffic in the center of Barcelona to then meet with local authorities at the city hall.

  • "There is quite a patchwork of different approaches in different countries and different cities"

    Pieter Van Cleynenbreugel · Professor of EU substantive law at the University of Liège

"Taxis have shown once again their strength," said Tito Álvarez, the leader of Élite Taxi, the main association in the Barcelona metropolitan area. "If they don’t respect the compromises reached, we’ll take to the streets again — even every day, if we have to."

Local authorities reassured the taxi sector they would launch a public app by February 2022, which cab drivers see as essential to replace the myriad private applications for one single app offering fixed prices.

According to Álvarez, Barcelona officials also promised to improve the training of local police officers and intensify controls of Cabify cars. "More than 70% of controls end up in sanctions, which shows how [the company] is proceeding," he said.

Taxi associations claim that Cabify has found ways around the rules it first deemed as draconian. A rule setting 15 minutes as the minimum period required to book in advance can be easily overstepped after the first service, they say. 

Additionally, while drivers can only leave the base after being booked for a ride, the taxi sector says they’ve seen many Cabify cars driving around the city without a passenger, or parking on the street while waiting for a new service.

Taxi drivers working with Uber seen as ‘traitors’

With Uber initially announcing 350 taxi drivers were ready to use the company’s software, pressure from their colleagues (who label them "traitors" and often resort to public shaming) led to many backing up and apologizing to their peers.

Taxi drivers would also order repeated rides to make the system collapse, with Tito Álvarez mockingly telling the press he challenged them to download the app and try to book a ride.

However, Uber claim that its app would actually help the taxi sector recover after the economic collapse caused by the pandemic, and defend that any mode of transportation contributing to emptying Barcelona of private cars was on the right side of the story.

"We’ve been working with taxi drivers in Madrid for over a year and already have over 2,000 using the service. The drivers that use Uber pick up twice as many customers than those who do not," said Yuri Fernández, a spokesperson for Uber in Spain, in an interview with the Catalan News Agency.  

EU: ‘A patchwork of different approaches’

With 10,521 licenses, which cost more than 130,000 euros each and are often used by more than one driver in different shifts, Barcelona is one the cities in Europe with the highest number of cabs per person.

Pieter Van Cleynenbreugel, a professor of EU substantive law at the University of Liège, believes that the Catalan capital sits at one end of the spectrum regulation-wise.

"There is quite a patchwork of different approaches in different countries and different cities," he said in an interview with Catalan News. On the one hand, there are cities where Uber and similar companies are perfectly legal, like Lisbon or Brussels. "Other cities, especially cities with a well-developed and well-entrenched taxi sector have adopted rules that are much more restrictive," he says.

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  • Taxis join a slow drive protest in Barcelona (by Lluís Sibils)

  • Taxis join a slow drive protest in Barcelona (by Lluís Sibils)