Anti-Uber Anger Is Spreading Around The World

Its early adopters swear by the SF-based car-service app. But as Uber expands internationally, local cabbies in Milan and Paris are fighting back. Will rickshaw drivers in Bangalore be next?

Cold days in Zurich
Julie Farrar

PARIS — Asphalt turf wars that began in California are now spreading to cities around the world as ride-sharing apps, mostly notably Uber, face off with old-school license-wielding taxi drivers.

From San Francisco and Los Angeles to Milan and Bangalore, Uber's revolutionary new economic model allows you to virtually hail and pay for private-car service on your smartphone. It costs a little more, but users love the convenience – and a little extra touch of luxury.

Used @uber for first time last night (up until last week I was one of the last blackberry holdouts) and, well, it's kinda magical.

— Shadi Hamid (@shadihamid) January 29, 2014

But many, especially traditional taxi drivers, have criticized the formula as skirting longstanding city regulations. After cease-and-desist letters sent by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, and allegations of the company stealing the drivers’ tips, the most recent controversy comes after the death of 6-year-old Sofia Liu on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco as she was on a crosswalk with her family. The wrongful death lawsuit claims the driver was on Uber’s app at the time of the accident, while Uber says they aren’t responsible and the driver was not carrying an Uber passenger at the time of the accident.

The company says it merely takes a fee for putting drivers and passengers together. And it's a model they want to replicate around the world. Here's how Uber-ing looks in Zurich, Switzerland.

The company operates in 26 countries worldwide, with a presence in more than 60 cities. Uber says its target is to open in two cities a week: This week it’s Honolulu and Lyon, France.

Photo via Uber Facebook Page

But as the company goes ever more global, they are running into an array of local regulations, disgruntled customers – and most of all, hostile cabbies.

In December in France a "15-minute law" was enacted — giving regular taxis a 15-minute head start against all private companies.

Photo by rafparis via Instagram

But the backlash against these kinds of companies continues. Taxi drivers took to the streets of Paris on January 13 to protest these urban transportation services, including Uber. The day took an ugly turn when protesters attacked an Uber car with two passengers near Charles de Gaulle airport. A window was smashed, the car hood was damaged and a tire was slashed.

Eventbrite co-founder and CTO Renaud Visage, and Five by Five co-founder Kat Borlongan were the two passengers, who tweeted after the incident:

Attackers tried to get in the car but our brave @uber driver maneuvered us to safety, changed the tire on the freeway and got us home.

— Kat Borlongan (@KatBorlongan) January 13, 2014

Attaqué par les taxis parisiens ce matin dans notre @Uber: jet de pierre, vitre arrière brisée, pneu creuvé, crachats

— Renaud Visage (@renaudvisage) January 13, 2014

"Attacked by Parisian taxis this morning in our @Uber: stones thrown, back window broken, slashed tire, spitting."

Uber released a statement condemning the attack: "That the taxis chose to use violence today is unacceptable, that they chose to strike is their business. However, Parisians also have a choice when it comes to moving around in their cities, and today's incident will certainly not tempt Parisians into choosing a taxi for their next ride. Safety, reliability and choice, not violence, are what continues to draw customers towards private hire vehicles."

By Uber_Paris via Instagram

The company later confirmed that more than a dozen incidents had occurred in Paris and the city of Lyon, where a soft launch of the service is underway.

French cab drivers pay enormous sums for their permits and now feel that their livelihoods are being threatened by these new car services. But customers are increasingly speaking with their e-wallets, especially in cities where it can be hard to find cabs.

Strikes over supremacy

Last week in Milan taxi drivers began protesting in a strike unaffiliated with the major unions. The drivers blocked roads for 14 hours, disrupting Linate Airport and the central train station, citing Uber, accusing the company of “unfair advantage.”

“Uber came onto the market without respecting the rules, becoming a real radio taxi but without playing by our rules and our limitations,” said Claudio Severgnini, head of Milan’s Taxi Tam company. Although his company did not take part in this unplanned strike, he certainly understands where the rage is coming from.

According to La Stampa, the drivers are up in arms that that San-Francisco-based Uber pays its European taxes in the Netherlands, and its drivers aren’t local Milanese — “they’re outsiders, coming from Puglia.”

I tassisti di Milano sono in sciopero contro una app (Uber). Ce la faremo a diventare un paese normale?

— Giuseppe Di Piazza (@Giu_Di_Piazza) January 29, 2014

"Milan's taxi drivers are protesting against an app (Uber). Will we ever manage to be a normal country?"

Another strike has been called for February 20 in the city.

Meanwhile, in Asia, the company is making its first inroads in such cities as Shanghai and Bangalore, where an auto rickshaw strike on Jan. 6 saw Uber drop prices by 75% to try to win the trust of locals.

Regulations and rules

Back Stateside, Atlanta is the latest battleground. What blogs were to newspapers, says Creative Loafing website, these startups are to cabs: They are not paying the fees and are picking up fares without any oversight.

The city's entire regulatory scheme has been called into question in a lawsuit filed by a group of taxi drivers who claim it's stifled competition and helped create a monopoly. "We'll ignore the same rules," says Rick Hewatt, CEO of Atlanta Checker Cab. "Either we're going to get everyone on the same level playing field or we're going to make the decision we need to compete.”

Photo by scottflory via Instagram

Working the loopholes

The cost of an Uber ride is typically 20-30% higher than traditional taxi fares, but when UberX launched last August in Washington D.C., it pitted their rates in direct competition with cabs. UberX works with fuel efficient cars, such as the Toyota Prius, but regulations in the capital ban fuel-efficient cars operating as sedans so the price must be lowered, according to The Verge.

Complaints directly from customers have mostly centered around so-called "surge pricing," when on such high-traffic occasions as New Year's Eve, the rates shoot up.

@uber really? One mile!

— Thomas Andersen (@andersen_Th) January 1, 2014

It’s only February but it's already shaping up as an eventful 2014 for Uber. And with new startups trying to apply the same method in various cities, the competition will surely grow even tougher. And, no doubt, more global too.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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