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23rd Mar 2019

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EU official: 'weak politicians' appease taxi drivers

  • Anti-Uber taxi protests in London in 2014 (Photo: DAVID HOLT)

The European Commission's most senior civil servant on transport issues, Henrik Hololei, has condemned "weak politicians" who protect incumbent taxi companies against new car-sharing initiatives.

Hololei gave a speech in Brussels on Thursday (7 February) about future mobility, and the benefits of car-pooling and car-sharing.

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  • 'When it comes to regulatory framework, some old-fashioned, totally non-future-oriented taxi companies can easily kill these initiatives,' said Hololei about car-sharing apps (Photo: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency)

"When it comes to regulatory framework, some old-fashioned, totally non-future-oriented taxi companies can easily kill these initiatives," said Hololei, who is director-general for Mobility and Transport at the commission.

"That's happening in many parts. Then you have weak politicians who get scared of some 25 violent taxi drivers," he said.

Hololei said a "vocal and even violent minority" was crowding out the "silent and somewhat indifferent majority" who would benefit from the new digital services.

"At the same time we all talk about sustainability, we want to have better air quality, we want to have less emissions, and for that purpose car-pooling and car-sharing are obvious tools that help you to achieve [those goals]," he added.

Hololei did not name any politicians, countries, or companies.

But his remarks, made at a seminar held at the Estonian permanent representation in Brussels, came just a week after the US taxi-app company Uber announced it was suspending its UberX service in Barcelona. So did its Spanish competitor Cabify.

Uber and Cabify took the step following new rules approved by the regional Catalan government, which require customers of ride-hailing services to book at least 15 minutes in advance.

These new rules were a response to several weeks of protests and strikes by taxi drivers in Barcelona.

Their colleagues in Madrid ended a 16-day strike just Wednesday (6 February), although with less success.

Companies like Uber have faced court cases across the EU in the past years, as incumbent taxi companies complained about unfair competition.

Initially, Uber mainly offered a service which connected passengers to drivers that did not necessarily have the same permits and licenses as taxi drivers did.

In 2017, the highest EU court determined that Uber was a transport company, and that its activities are covered by transport law.

'Easy to hide' behind laws

In his speech, Hololei said there was "a big difference between the Europeans and the Americans" in terms of regulatory frameworks.

A European reflex is to say that things are not possible because of the legal framework, he said.

"We tend to see things so that the glass is half empty, while actually the glass is half full," he noted.

He said it was "easy to hide" behind legislation. He referred for example to the legal limits to fully autonomous driving.

The Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, signed in 1968 and in effect since 1977, states that a driver should always be in control of her or his vehicle - which is a rule that defeats the purpose of the self-driving car.

"You can get around it if you are creative," suggested Hololei.

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