Black cab protest backfires by promoting app for rivals

The Times, Phillip Pank (Transport Correspondent), 13 June 2014.

Organisers of a black cab protest against the Uber mini-cab app are planning further action even though a go-slow demonstration on Wednesday appeared to have backfired by generating publicity worth tens of millions of pounds for the rival service.

Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, was due to meet Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, last night to discuss the dispute over the app which is undercutting traditional taxi operators.

The app surged from No 26 in the iTunes most popular chart on the eve of the protest to No 3 yesterday, surpassed only by Fifa’s World Cup app and Facebook’s Messenger service. The company claimed that it enjoyed an 850 per cent increase in business.

However, it refused to reveal how many passengers used its service or the number of drivers it had in London and Manchester.

Marketing executives claimed that the protest, which brought central London to a standstill, had been a spectacular miscalculation. Analysis of social media showed that many more people were opposed to the demonstration than supported it.

Ian Stephens, head of Saffron Brand Consultants, said: “I think it is a massive own goal. Uber have come across as the consumer champion, saying ‘We are just trying to do the best for the consumer’.”

He estimated that the exposure on television, radio and in newspapers was worth up to £100 million for the brand in terms of advertising. ”

Mr McNamara said they were aware of the risks of publicising Uber but “took the decision that there are a set number of people who use mini-cab apps in London and the vast majority of those would be aware of Uber”.

He said that the Mayor had joined those voicing concerns over Uber’s decision to channel all payments from the UK through the Netherlands. Critics claim that the company is seeking to avoid UK taxes and take advantage of lower tax rates in the Netherlands.

Mr McNamara said: “We will be having more protests. Quite a lot of cabbies enjoyed themselves yesterday.”

Jo Bertram, general manager for Uber London, declined to say how many new users subscribed to the service. “We do not typically share that but it was in the thousands,” she said. Ms Bertram insisted that the company was compliant with tax laws.

Taxi drivers in Paris, Berlin and Madrid staged protests on the same day as the London demonstration. Transport for London has asked the High Court to decide whether the app, which uses GPS tracking to measure distance traveled and time to calculate fares, should be classed as a taximeter. Only black cabs are allowed by law to use one.


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