Has ride-sharing firm Uber met its match in Barcelona?

Regulatory restrictions and incensed taxi drivers make city a challenge for company

Last Wednesday evening several hundred taxi drivers gathered near Barcelona’s Sants railway station for a demonstration, setting off flares, fireworks and playing loud music. One man even handed out sausages which he had been cooking in a supermarket trolley.

The atmosphere was festive, but the message was a serious one: that Uber and other digital ride-sharing companies are destroying the taxi industry with impunity – and these drivers will not surrender without a fight.

The demonstration culminated with two coffins propped against doors of the regional transport office. One bore the name of Uber, the other Cabify, a ride-sharing firm that operates in Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

“Uber don’t come to cities to improve mobility,” says Alberto Álvarez, founder of and spokesman for the taxi drivers’ association, Élite Taxi. “That’s a fairy tale they’ve made up. They’ve come to create misery. They’re fooling people so that they don’t see the reality of Uber. It’s aggressive, savage capitalism.”

The bulky, combative Álvarez has become a figurehead of the campaign by Barcelona taxi drivers against digital ride-sharing firms, helping bolster the city’s status as an anti-Uber stronghold in southern Europe.

While Uber has been operating in more than 600 cities worldwide, it has been absent from Barcelona for the last four years, due to legal and regulatory obstacles. But on March 13th, the company returned with its revamped UberX service, which requires drivers to have a so-called driven vehicle (VTC) licence. Spain, unlike most European countries, imposes a ratio restriction on the number of VTC licences which can be issued: one for every 30 taxis.

Carles Lloret, general manager for Uber in southwest Europe, admits that it took a while for Uber to digest the fact that the highly liberalised model it had implemented in the United States would not work in many parts of Europe.

“The mistake we made was trying to replicate too fast an American model,” he says, speaking in Uber’s Madrid offices.

He explains that “Spain has historically had probably one of the most restrictive regulations in Europe” in this area, making it a particularly challenging country.

Uber is treading carefully on its return to Barcelona and Lloret's conciliatory, almost contrite, attitude contrasts with the brashness that characterised the company when it was on the rise under founder Travis Kalanick, who has since been sidelined.

“Something we’ve learned over the last few years is that it’s really important to partner with cities, to do things in a way that will solve cities’ problems, that doesn’t create the unnecessary conflicts that we had in the past,” says Lloret.

He insists that Uber can work in harmony with the taxi industry in cities like Barcelona, growing demand and even sharing technology.

But the swing leftwards of many of Spain's biggest cities in recent years suggests that could be an optimistic view. Madrid and Barcelona are governed by coalitions linked to Podemos, the only major national political party which has sternly criticised the likes of Uber and been vocal in its support for taxi drivers. Barcelona mayor Ada Colau has vowed to ensure tight regulation of ride-sharing firms in her city.

Regardless of whether Uber can navigate such legal restrictions, the company and its rivals still face the ire of taxi drivers, who pay up to €150,000 for an operating licence, which many of them fear the American company is making obsolete.

The recent taxi drivers’ demonstration is expected to be the first in a series of actions aimed at persuading the authorities to clamp down further on digital ride-sharing platforms – and at showing Uber and Cabify (nicknamed “Crapify” by taxi drivers) that they are not welcome. The taxi sector has already shown in recent months that it can bring cities like Madrid and Barcelona to a virtual standstill through strikes. Meanwhile, a string of violent episodes has drawn accusations that they frequently damage Uber and Cabify cars and intimidate their drivers.

In one incident last year, nine cars belonging to Cabify were torched near the southern city of Seville. Unauto, an association representing firms that employ VTC drivers, blamed the incident on taxi drivers.

Álvarez denied the claim and said that Cabify had burned the cars itself in an effort to turn public opinion against the taxi industry. In another incident, a Cabify driver in Barcelona was only just able to get out of his car before it was rolled upside down – apparently by taxi drivers.

Tensions were visible in Barcelona almost as soon as Uber made its recent return, with video footage circulating on the internet of an angry confrontation between one of the company’s employees and a taxi driver.

“We know how far we are willing to go to put bread on the table of our families,” says Álvarez. “In Barcelona they’ll have to sweat blood if they want to come and ruin us. Without a doubt, this is going to be the worst city for them. Because we’re convinced that the days of Uber and Cabify are numbered.”

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