Uber case to shape future of shared mobility

The role of shared mobility in shaping European transport is likely to be influenced by a Spanish case referred to the European Court of Justice. A judge in Barcelona has asked the court to rule on whether Uber, the smartphone application for hailing taxis, often unlicensed, should be regulated as a digital or transport service. Meanwhile, the European Commission has launched its own investigation into how to deal with Uber, which will run in parallel with the court case.

Launched as a smartphone-based ‘ride-sharing’ service in 2009 in San Francisco, Uber has proved highly popular as an alternative to taxis. It allows people to connect with drivers providing a taxi service administered by the company but not necessarily regulated by official taxi authorities.

Uber has faced opposition from the taxi sector, which says the US company is able to avoid laws on safety, registration and insurance, thus creating unfair competition. Germany, France and Spain have all imposed bans or strict limits on Uber, and the judge in Barcelona referred a series of questions to the ECJ because of a lack of clarity on whether Uber is a digital or transport service.

Despite its challenge to existing taxi services in Europe, including some monopolies, the Commission has so far not taken a position on Uber. The investigation will look at the way taxis and other driver services are regulated to see if an EU-wide framework is needed. It will also look at complaints by Uber against the bans imposed in France, Germany and Spain. The findings of the investigation are expected to be published in summer 2016, but the ECJ may hand down its ruling before then.

From an environmental point of view, car sharing can reduce car-dependency, but may also lead to extra journeys being taken by car. Measures to regulate car CO2 and promote electric vehicles may be required to ensure taxi-hailing services contribute to more sustainable mobility patterns.

The potential of the internet and smartphones to revolutionise transport was discussed in May this year at the International Transport Forum, where representatives from Google, Nokia, Zipcar, Uber and BlaBlaCar outlined how making greater use of the existing car fleet could drastically reduce the number of cars on Europe’s roads. But the five organisations are also aware that making greater use of existing vehicle capacity will change the revenue-raising landscape for governments, so governments and the EU will have to adjust both their regulations and their taxation frameworks.