Uber reckoning: Ride-sharing drivers attacked by frustrated taxi incumbents in Brussels

By Michael Carney , written on March 24, 2015

From The News Desk

Uber has been a lightning rod for controversy almost since its first day in existence. More often than not, the company has been the one flaunting laws and, arguably, putting its riders and drivers at risk. But, this is not always the case. Occasionally, Uber ends up playing the role of victim.

In the latest instance of such a role reversal, Uber drivers across Europe have been the target of attacks by local taxi drivers. These protests took an unusually aggressive turn in Brussels over the weekend, where drivers of the transportation network company (TNC) had eggs and flour thrown at (and into) their cars, and their smartphones stolen to prevent them from accepting fares. Even Uber passengers were on the receiving end of this brutality, with many being “dragged out of the car by taxi drivers,” according to Uber’s general manager in Belgium, Filip Nuytemans, in a WSJ report.

Not surprisingly, Brussels Association of Taxis president Constantin Tsatsakis called the reports exaggerated, adding that there was “no aggression,” despite conceding that eggs and flour had been thrown and phones had been “confiscated” – as if the latter were some sort of sanctioned action, as opposed to outright theft.

At least one Belgian taxi driver was arrested and confessed to throwing flour in an attempt to prevent riders from entering the vehicle. This driver was arraigned in Belgian court yesterday.

It’s not as if anti-Uber protests are something new. Protests by incumbent taxi and limousine competitors have prevented its drivers from working (temporarily) in numerous markets around the world, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, London, and Paris, among others. But these incidents have been, by and large, peaceful, with the most aggressive tactic widely adopted being to deliberately block traffic – which is as much a show of force as it is an effort to interrupt Uber’s operations. The incidents in Brussels over the last week represent a significant escalation.

Uber has a well-earned reputation for entering new markets with blatant disregard for existing transportation legislation and only engaging with regulators after it has won the support of local citizens. The latest protests in Europe stem from frustration over this very tactic, and in anticipation of a imminent “liberalization” of taxi regulations in many markets, according to the WSJ. This is not the case everywhere, however, as Uber was recently dealt a significant blow in both Germany and Spain, where the company’s UberPOP service – an UberX-like “ride-sharing” service which relies on everyday drivers without taxi licenses – have been banned under current regulations.

As we have discussed at length, Uber’s enormous valuation and ambitious growth plans are predicated on a near global ubiquity of its service. At present, the company is fighting legal battles for the very right to operate in more than a dozen markets, the combination of which represent nearly half the world’s GDP. This, combined with equally fundamental challenges to the company’s classification of its drivers as contractors – a fight that competitor Lyft and other “gig economy” startups must also fight – raises major concerns about the health of Uber’s business.

Make no mistake about it, Uber is an absolute juggernaut that has expanded around the globe at unprecedented rates, all while changing the way people move around cities. But the company’s aggressive and unapologetic approach to this growth has earned it a number of powerful enemies along the way. In that sense, it’s unsurprising, although no less sad, that this frustration has spilled over into violence.

More importantly, however, this incident is a reminder that there’s no free lunch and that Uber and all other startup companies will be forced to answer for the shortcuts taken in the pursuit of growth. For Uber, it’s beginning to look like that time of reckoning has arrived.