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European taxi protest: Fight against inevitable? Guide to tech upheaval in transport industry

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PARIS - Cabbies and train workers walked off the job on Wednesday, leaving traffic snarled in some of Europe's biggest cities as they protested changes to the travel industry that they say could endanger passengers and give untested upstarts an unfair advantage.

Travellers in France faced the brunt of the strike, with the Paris commuter rails and the national train network down to one-third its usual capacity at the same time as taxis refused to take fares and blocked major highways leading into the French capital by travelling at a snail's pace. Taxi drivers staged similar protests in London and Berlin. Apparently timed for the strike, the app-driven car service Uber released an app directed at London customers and in Paris was offering free rides to some customers.

"It means that the message must be heard, it means that there's something wrong in Europe," said Salem Ferrari, a 34-year-old taxi driver who has been in the business for more than three years.

Workers on the French national railway SNCF are striking over plans to streamline and open the state-run network, considered among the world's best, to private competition.

Taken together, the concerns reflect growing upheaval in the travel and transport industry, largely due to technologies that have made things easier for travellers but which have caused workers to voice concerns about safety — and their jobs.

"The fact is that digital technology is changing many aspects of our lives" said Neelie Kroes, the European Union vice-president in charge of digital affairs. "We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence."

Some of the changes and the debate surrounding them:


Services like Uber and Chauffeur Prive, the crux of Wednesday's taxi strike, allow passengers to hail a ride from a mobile app. Taxi drivers, who can pay tens of thousands of dollars (euros) for their medallions, complain that it's unfair and that drivers of the private services don't face the same training or licensing requirements. Uber has been banned in Brussels, and come under scrutiny in Spain, but the European Union is pushing for acceptance, saying it benefits consumers.


Subway lines are increasingly run by semi-conductors, and not human conductors. Two metro lines along Paris' Seine River are automated, but creating driverless systems required extensive negotiations with the unions, followed by an advertising campaign to persuade passengers of its safety, which included hiring musicians for two days to offer their interpretation of a song composed in honour of the computerization. About 40 supervisory jobs were available to the 250 drivers who worked on one of the lines.


Airbnb pioneered the idea of linking up homeowners with travellers, allowing people to rent out a room or an entire home for considerably less than hotel rates — especially in heavily visited cities like London, Paris and New York. The company that made a commodity of couch-surfing has come under criticism from the hotel chains that are its main competitors — they are subject to health and safety inspections that people who list their homes on Airbnb don't face. Landlords are also watching closely because subletting is often barred under leases, and city governments have filed complaints that the service could be violating local laws regulating zoning and transient housing.


Online travel booking has devastated the jobs of travel agents. Since 2000, their numbers have been cut in half, from about 124,000 to 64,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's projected to decline by 12 per cent in the next decade. It happened with hardly a protest, largely because most travel agencies — both in Europe and the U.S. — tend to be smaller, non-unionized companies.


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