By LAURENCE ILIFF
May 25, 2015 6:44 p.m. ET
MEXICO CITY—Hundreds of taxi drivers blocked main thoroughfares in Mexico City on Monday to demand that authorities crack down on the popular ride-hailing service Uber, which responded by offering free trips throughout the day to its users.
The protest against Uber Technologies Inc., its smaller Spain-based counterpart Cabify, and unlicensed cabbies turned parts of the capital’s streets into virtual parking lots dominated by the pink-and-white taxis that are licensed by the city government.
Riot police formed human walls in some places to prevent the protesters from heading into the core downtown area, home to the massive Zocalo plaza and seat of the Mexico City government.
Social media lit up, turning the hashtag #UberSeQueda, or “UberStays,” into a world-wide trending topic on the Twitter website. Uber offered its more than 300,000 registered users two free trips for up to 150 pesos (about $10) each. Uber’s minimum trip cost in Mexico City is about $2.65.
Supporters of the alternative car services posted on Twitter a litany of complaints against Mexico City’s notoriously aggressive taxi drivers, saying drivers will often tell passengers “I don’t have change,” “the taxi meter is broken,” or “I don’t go there.” Supporters of the taxi drivers suggested local authorities were favoring foreign interests over Mexican ones.
The battle pits the capital’s much-maligned but politically well-connected taxi organizations against the global ride-sharing giant as they compete for fares. At issue is whether Uber and similar services are illegal public taxis or legal private chauffeur services. Legal experts say current laws can be argued either way.
Mexico City authorities plan to hold public discussions to debate regulations to cover the emergence of car services not covered by the current law. At the same time, traffic police have cracked down on Uber, impounding cars and imposing stiff fines on the grounds they’re being used as unauthorized taxis.
Some Uber drivers have reported being verbally or physically attacked, particularly on weekend nights, when competition for revelers is greatest. Few of the attacks have resulted in injuries.
The Association of Organized Taxi Drivers, which held Monday’s protest, said Mexico City authorities have failed to apply transit laws to Uber, Cabify and unlicensed taxis. “It’s obvious that there is open protection of Uber, Cabify and the other 30,000 pirate [taxis] by the Mexico City government,” the group said in a statement. Taxi drivers have complained that, unlike the new services, they must pay stiff fees for licenses and charge fares set by the local government.
Luis de Uriarte, head of communications for Uber Mexico and Central America, said the car service is willing to participate in government forums to discuss ways to come up with regulations for the relatively new, smartphone app-based car services.
“We are thrilled to contribute to this debate,” Mr. De Uriarte said. He said Uber operates in more than 300 cities around the world under a variety of local transportation rules.
But he insisted that Uber’s operations in Mexico, where it began nearly two years ago, have been completely legal since its smartphone application simply provides a way for someone looking for a private car service to find one. “We maintain that we are within the law,” he said.
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