Taxi drivers caused traffic chaos across Europe today by mounting one of the biggest ever protests against mobile app Uber.
The US car service allows people to summon rides at the touch of a button but unions and groups representing taxi drivers are warning that the move is leading to unlicensed drivers being contacted via the new technology, with no checks on whether they are legitimate.
In protest 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, while 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, valued last week at $18.2bn (£10.8bn) 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 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 says its fares are cheaper than black taxis in London. Other taxi drivers allege Uber's technology is effectively a taximeter and thus contravenes a 1998 British law reserving the right to use a meter for licensed black taxis.
They say the city's transport regulator, Transport for London, is failing to enforce the rules. The regulator says its provisional view is that smartphone applications do not constitute a taximeter but has asked the High Court for a view.
After the disruptions, Uber hit back in Germany by emailing its clients offering a 50 per cent discount on all shared rides for the duration of the day. In London the company offered new customers £20 off their first journey.
In Spain, the Ministry of Public Works has warned that companies or individuals offering Uber-type services faced fines of up to €6,000 (£4,800), while users could be fined up to €600. The ministry has not specifically named Uber.
Neelie Kroes, the EU commissioner in charge of digital and telecoms policy, said responding to companies like Uber with strikes was pointless.
"We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence," she said in a blog published on Wednesday.
It was an argument that failed to sway taxi drivers around Europe, however.
"Yes this is chaos, its causing havoc in the very centre of London, but what other choice have we got?" said Ian Hay, a taxi driver with 14 years’ experience.