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24-hour strike over online car services leaves Madrid without taxis

Drivers’ associations claim 100 percent support for stoppage, which is also affecting Barcelona

Images from Wednesday’s taxi strike.

There was not a taxi to be found on the streets of Madrid on Wednesday morning after the city’s cab drivers began a 24-hour strike to protest against online carpooling companies that match individual drivers and passengers.

The two biggest taxi drivers’ associations said there was 100 percent adherence to the stoppage, which has been called to demonstrate against smartphone applications such as Uber, which is run by a US-based company that has repeatedly been accused of operating an unlicensed cab service.

At the capital’s Barajas international airport the normally teeming taxi rank sat empty from the early hours of the morning, with most travelers relying on buses to get into the city center.

There were similar scenes at the city’s main Atocha train station, where the taxi area was closed off with a chain.

In Barcelona – the only city where Uber is currently operating in Spain – protests by tax drivers have also made finding a cab difficult.

The taxi drivers are protesting against what they claim is unfair competition from a service that allows passengers to order a ride from Uber-registered drivers. A taxi license in Spain can cost anywhere between €80,000 and €200,000.

Cab drivers say there is unfair competition from a service that lets passengers order a ride from unlicensed drivers

It had begun as an industry conflict between taxi drivers and the online carpooling companies. But when the European Commission (EC), Spain’s Public Works Ministry and the Catalan government jumped into the fray on Tuesday, the issue took on a whole new dimension.

In Brussels, EC Vice-President Neelie Kroes warned that Uber is not “the enemy” of taxi professionals, and rejected the Catalan government’s decision to ban the app in Barcelona, the city where the service had its Spanish launch.

“Strikes will resolve nothing,” said Kroes in reference to protests scheduled to take place in London, Milan and Hamburg, among other cities. She defended the “innovation” represented by these “transportation network companies,” as Uber and others have been defined by California authorities following a legal wrangle over the nature of their operations.

“The time has come for taxi drivers, regulators and Uber heads to sit down and talk; nobody is saying that its drivers should not pay taxes and respect consumer protection regulations, but banning Uber does not give them an opportunity to do things well.”

Another EU spokesman said the European executive is favorable to an economy that is “open to innovation.”

The ban neither protects nor helps passengers, it only protects the taxi cartel”

Neelie Kroes, EC Vice-President

These same sources wondered whether the problem can be resolved by “fining people who are often tourists,” in reference to threats issued by Spanish authorities.

But for the moment, the Catalan government is threatening companies that exact payment for transporting passengers without the proper license with fines of up to €6,000. The Public Works Ministry has also announced fines of its own.

Meanwhile, Spain’s most popular carpooling company, BlaBlaCar, issued a statement reminding its users that they are not in violation of any laws because they are not asked to pay for a livery cab service. Customers simply “share travel expenses.”

This is not the first time that the European Commission has criticized attempts to prevent carpooling and alternative cab services from entering the market.

“The ban neither protects nor helps passengers, it only protects the taxi cartel,” wrote Kroes in mid-April in her official blog.