Madrid and Barcelona, ​​the face and tail of Uber in Spain

The time for the autonomous communities or municipalities to regulate the activity of transport vehicles with driver (VTC) in their territories is running out. The moratorium that the then Minister of Transport José Luis Ábalos granted in 2019 to try to mitigate the conflict with the taxi sector comes to an end on October 1 and the regional executives are rushing to define them. At the moment, the regulatory advances draw two clear models: one more permissive with these companies such as Uber, Bolt and Cabify, which represents the Community of Madrid, and another more restrictive, which is that of Catalonia and, above all, Barcelona.

Precisely, the Parliament has given its approval this Wednesday to the decree that limits the activity of the VTC in Catalonia, with the votes in favor of ERC, JxCAT, the PSC, En Comú Podem and the CUP. This same Tuesday, a march of transport vehicles with driver occupied the streets of Barcelona against the measure. An image that contrasts with the one seen in Madrid less than two months ago, when the Assembly approved with the 'yes' of the PP and the abstention of Vox the new transport law that allowed companies like Uber to continue operating in the region with normality, waiting for the approval of a regulation on which the regional Executive is already working. While the vote was taking place, taxi drivers, who are offended by the measure, protested at the gates of the regional Chamber.

The president of the Community of Madrid has never hidden her support for the chauffeur-driven transport vehicle sector. "We do not want to end the VTC," she acknowledged in full conflict with the taxi sector over the approval of this law, which allows companies such as Uber, Bolt or Cabify to continue operating in the region as before, at least until October. In his speech, Ayuso raised the tone to the ideological plane and assured that preventing them from operating would be attacking "citizens, against freedom and against business freedom" and even charged against the mayor of Barcelona: “Here you are not going to go on a donkey, as Colau wants”said.

That transport law, which The Madrid Assembly approved on June 2 with the votes in favor of the PP, the abstention of Vox Y the taxi sector against, allowed VTCs to continue operating in the Community as they had been doing until then, pending regulatory development, which will take place on two fronts: for taxis and for VTCs. In the case of vehicles with a driver, the Community has launched a procedure so that the interested parties and the most representative organizations in the sector send their opinions to the administration with a view to drawing up this regulation.

Pending how it is written, vehicles with drivers cannot circulate empty looking for passengers on the street, they have to be pre-hired through applications and they do not have specific stops. In addition, they continue to operate within cities, and not only for intercity services, for which they were originally defined.

The support for VTCs and companies like Uber, both by the Community and by the Madrid City Council, has been evident over time, through gestures and actions. In May, the American company announced that Madrid would be the first European city in which they would launch a new leisure platform on the continent. "It is the main market for Uber in Spain and one of the most desired tourist destinations at an international level," said the general director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Anabel Díaz.

VTC licenses in the Community of Madrid have been increasing at great speed in recent years. Currently there are about 8,000, according to data from the sector, compared to 16,000 for the taxi. They are half, despite the long history of the traditional taxi.

In June, it was revealed that the Ministry of Health put an end to the agreement by which the Professional Federation of Taxi from Madrid transferred Primary Care doctors who had to travel to care for patients in residences and homes. The taxi drivers, who during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic transferred patients and professionals for free, lost a contract of 1.5 million euros, which goes to the VTC company Grupo Auro. This company has more than 2,300 licenses and works with Cabify, Uber and Bolt.

When earlier this month, a leak revealed Uber's strategies to circumvent laws and pressure politicians to land in new markets, President Ayuso chose to stand in profile. She asked to "know in depth" the case, but she stated that her Executive sees it "from afar." "It is a private company that has this matter outside our borders," she clarified. internal documents, leaked to The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its collaborating media, The country Y The sixth in Spain, they detail how the company prepared its arrival in new countries: first, they try to circumvent national laws and then they organize their lobbying network to pressure high-ranking politicians. "Sometimes we have problems because, well, it's that we're fucking illegal," acknowledges a manager in an email.

The VTCs also have a good ally in the Madrid City Council. The Municipal Transport Company (EMT) has recently signed a very advantageous agreement for the company Moove Cars, owner of the largest fleet of transport vehicles with an Uber driver in the south of Madrid. The company has leased 308 of the 501 spaces in the public car park in San Epifanio, in the district of Arganzuela, for two years with extensions, for around 150,000 euros per year. Or what is the same, about 40 euros per month. What is the price for a resident? 100 euros per month if rented for one year or 80 if the contract is for five. At least twice as much as for Uber.

The last conflict between the taxi and Uber in Madrid dates back to just a few days ago. From July 6 to 10, Mad Cool was held in the capital. The festival has an agreement with the VTC company, for which it enjoyed advantageous conditions to pick up and transfer the thousands of attendees, some 80,000, who attended the event. The Professional Taxi Federation denounced that the organization has allowed Uber to be inside the premises, while the nearest taxi stop was located 15 minutes away on foot, and has criticized the City Council for allowing it.

The mobility plan to return home from Valdebebas, where Mad Cool was held, after the concerts has aroused criticism from some attendees, who denounced on social networks the lack of public transport, long queues to access both taxis and VTC and races of up to 100 euros to travel in Uber due to the high demand. A spokesman for the company assured then that “the average price of trips from Mad Cool in the last two nights has been 32 and 37 euros in the peak hour at the exit of the festival, between 2 and 3 in the early in the morning,” reports Efe.

Catalonia has practically become the opposite extreme of Madrid's policies regarding vehicles with drivers. In 2018, with the so-called 'Ábalos decree', by the former Minister of Transport, an equal regulatory framework was imposed for all of Spain, which, however, the metropolitan administration of Barcelona (which includes 36 Catalan municipalities) toughened, establishing a contract minimum of one hour, that is, 45 minutes more than the state one. The Superior Court of Justice overturned this regulation in July 2019, but that did not prevent Uber from maintaining its decision to withdraw from the Catalan capital, while Cabify chose to reduce its service, respecting the 15-minute pre-contract.

The pandemic kept the sector frozen and with little change. Until at the beginning of last summer Uber once again gave signs of wanting to return to Barcelona. The platform's plans were to offer an intermediary service to connect users with taxi drivers, an idea that did not catch on in the sector, very mobilized and faced with anything that sounds like VTC. Uber's idea did not come to fruition, while Cabify maintained its strategy of continuing with services, ensuring that they adapted to the regulatory framework. However, this second company has also had friction with the Catalan administrations. Last September the Government fined Cabify 187.00 for illegal transfer of workers, after an inspection.

That precarious balance, which both the taxi and the platforms for vehicles with drivers had accepted as the lesser evil, had an expiration date, because the 'Ábalos decree' was due to expire next October. Given this, the Government has approved this week a new regulation of its own that clearly toughens the conditions for the VTC sector, to the point that it almost completely restricts its competition with the taxi.

Faced with a scenario in which the majority of VTC licenses were going to become a dead letter in October, Catalonia's decision has been to extend only those that meet certain requirements. The new conditions are that the license is already associated with a vehicle, that it has provided a passenger transport service with a driver during the last year and, lastly, that the vehicles from now on have certain dimensions and an ecological label, which make them either in minivans or in large displacement vehicles.

Of the current 4,000 licenses granted for the Catalan territory, only 2,700 have an assigned vehicle and, of that number, only about 1,500 have given service in the last year. It is therefore only these that can be maintained from now on. However, this regulation only affects routes considered urban, that is, within the Barcelona metropolitan area, but not other areas of Catalonia, such as private transport between locations far from the capital.

But, in addition, the requirements require vehicles to be at least 4.90 meters long, in addition to having the ZERO or ECO label. A measure that will force a major renovation of the VTC mobile fleet, to turn it into a service much more aimed at high-end cars or passenger van-type vehicles, widely used during congresses and city transport associated with work. .

For Cabify, this new regulatory framework will cause "thousands of professionals to lose their jobs in the coming months, with the social and economic consequences that this will have in Barcelona in particular and in Catalonia in general", according to the company. , who understands that they are trying to expel them from the Catalan capital. Despite this, Cabify assures that it will try to maintain the service, but does not rule out presenting the legal battle against the new decree.

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