As Brian Doherty noted at Hit & Run yesterday, the cabbies of Europe clogged the streets on Wednesday to demand that Uber, the high-tech car service that's upending the taxi business worldwide, be regulated or booted from their varous cities. I have a piece at The Daily Beast today looking at why the protests backfired—new Uber signups in London jumped 850 percent after Wednesday's action—and Europe's anti-Uber forces may have already lost the war.
First of all, the cabbies didn't even bother pretending that their objections had to do with anything other than turf protection. At least the taxi drivers of San Francisco and Chicago make an effort to pretend that their cause is really about passenger safety. Isn't it charming when a cabbie blocks traffic, bangs on his horn, or just drives very slowly, to make the point that the state should preserve his monopoly privileges?
While the cabbies say it's unfair that Uber is exempt from taxi regulations, the company is making a mockery of the notion that the testing and permitting requirements ubiquitous in European and U.S. cities serve any purpose other than to protect existing drivers. As I noted in the piece:
London mandates that its cabbies pass a 149-year-old exam called "The Knowledge" that requires them to master the city's maze-like streets and know the precise location of museums, police stations, and theaters. As part of the test, they have to verbally recite detailed explanations of how best to travel from one location to another through the city's roughly 25,000 arteries. Passing "The Knowledge" takes years of study, and most drivers fail at their first few tries. The test causes the gray matter in applicants' brains to expand, according to one London researcher.
Perhaps the most compelling case for letting Uber thrive is that London's brainy cabbies should devote their oversize hippocampi to contributing to fields like computer science and medical research. In an age of ubiquitous GPS devices, many of which also incorporate real-time traffic data, circling the city in a car is a profound waste of such exceptional minds. London may as well also require that cabbies master the art of saddling a horse and mending a harness.