Taxi drivers sowed traffic chaos in Europe's top cities on Wednesday by mounting one of the biggest ever protests against Uber, a U.S. car service which allows people to summon rides at the touch of a button.
Drivers of hundreds of London's black taxis snarled traffic in the streets around Trafalgar Square, hooting their horns as they passed Downing Street, the home of Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Houses of Parliament.
In Paris, taxi drivers slowed traffic on major arteries into the city centre during the morning commute. In Berlin hundreds choked the main road to the city's historic centre while commuters juggled buses and trains, or simply walked, to get to work in Madrid and Barcelona.
San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc., valued last week at $18.2 billion just four years since its 2010 launch, has touched a raw nerve by bringing home the threat of technological advances to one of the world's most visible trades.
"This about an all out assault on our profession, our livelihoods," said Max Small, a driver of one of London's black taxis for 34 years. "These big companies are coming in, not playing by the rules."
Taxi drivers across Europe level a variety of charges against Uber: that its applications break local taxi rules; that its drivers fail to comply with local insurance rules; and that it is therefore in breach of licensing and safety regulations.
Uber, backed by investors such as Goldman Sachs and Google, refute all those allegations, a spokeswoman said. Uber said it, its applications and its drivers comply with local regulations.
"What you are seeing today is an industry that has not faced competition for decades. Now finally we are seeing competition from companies such as Uber which is bringing choice to customers," said Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, Uber Regional General Manager for Europe.
"Across a number of different countries the taxi industry is very similar - an industry which is highly regulated and arranged in a way that is not pro-consumer but just promotes protectionism."
Uber has expanded rapidly since it was founded by two U.S. technology entrepreneurs, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, and now operates in 128 cities across 37 countries.
Uber Chief Executive Officer Kalanick last week announced $1.2 billion in new funding, valuing the company at $18.2 billion, one of the highest valuations ever for a Silicon Valley startup.
But it has faced a series of hurdles from the beaches of Miami to the piazzas of Rome.