Like every Uber executive trying to get the $41bn online car-sharing service established in cities around the world, the head of Uber in Italy has faced plenty of resistance as she takes on powerful established interests.
Uber faces regulatory opposition in many places – authorities in the Chinese city of Chengdu paid a visit to Uber’s offices last week as part of an ongoing investigation; and the service has been banned in the US state of Kansas – but in Italy, the battle has become personal.
Benedetta Arese Lucini, 31, has been the subject of a steady stream of harassment from people staunchly opposed to the private taxi service in Milan, where Uber has its Italian headquarters. In February, a sign accusing Arese Lucini of being a prostitute was displayed near her house. She has had eggs thrown at her, and posters with the words “I steal” printed over her face have been plastered around taxi stands.
Her open-plan office, in a former photography studio in a trendy district of Milan, is entirely unmarked from the outside, and nearly impossible to find.
“It’s like that on purpose,” she said. “We try to avoid too many people knowing where we are.”
It is not just Arese Lucini who has been targeted. Her marketing managers are insulted on Twitter every day, she says, and there’s a worrying sense of “private justice” pervasive among people in the taxi industry.
They are staunchly opposed to Uber, an app-based service that allows people to locate the closest available car on their smartphone and book a ride after agreeing a set fare. Protests and regulatory interventions against Uber around the world have focused on allegations that it is, in effect, an unregulated taxi service.
Referring to her opponents in Milan, Arese Lucini says: “On their side, they don’t feel like the government is doing enough for them. It’s not a healthy environment.”
She adds that Travis Kalanick, the San Francisco-based chief executive of Uber, “knows that I am fierce. But he is very clear about the fact that people come first.”
This was supposed to be Uber’s year in Europe. Having faced resistance in cities across the EU, Kalanick declared in January that he wanted to focus on forging “new partnerships” in European cities, and promised that the expansion of the private company could eventually create 50,000 jobs.
Since then, Uber has become the subject of a criminal investigation in the Netherlands and an injunction in Geneva, where it was accused of operating as an illegal taxi service. But the company – which prefers to call itself a ride-sharing service – is fighting back: it recently made a complaint to the European commission over the banning of its peer-to-peer unlicensed services in Germany, France and Spain.
In Italy, Uber operates in a grey zone – not quite illegal, but not quite condoned by the law, either.
“There has been no single, centralised pronouncement on Uber,” said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffè, a business professor at the Bocconi school of management in Milan. “We have political positions and several contradictory interpretations of the law. There is no jurisprudence.”
The company’s challenges here are the same as those facing any innovative group in Italy: deeply entrenched regional and local interests, a painstakingly slow-moving judicial system, stodgy bureaucracy and a general resistance to change.
Arese Lucini sees herself as part of a new guard trying to shake things up, much as Italy’s 40-year-old prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has sought to foster his image of an agent of change.
Uber’s biggest obstacle in Italy at the moment is a 1992 law that, among other things, puts severe restrictions on taxi and limo services by limiting the number of licences that are available for drivers in any given city. Although there have been attempts to deregulate the system in the past, none has succeeded.
For now, Uber is arguing – mostly with success – that it is different from public taxi services because it is discriminating about its users – in that it only gives rides to people who book through its smartphone app.
Changes to the 1992 law are being debated, and Arese Lucini hopes it will recognise that Uber as a private alternative to public transport.
In the immediate future, she is focusing on this summer’s Expo world fair in Milan and the partnership she has forged with the US delegation. Uber has promised Expo guests free rides. She says she is excited by the opportunity, though it is clear she had hoped for much more.
If Arese Lucini had it her way, the Expo – which is expected to attract 20 million people over the next six months – would have been a grand coming-out party for Uber, and the city of Milan would have promoted it as an alternative to public transport.
“I was hoping the pressure of the numbers of people and foreign visitors would have encouraged a bit more openness,” she says. “We’re not there yet.”
Cities where Uber has run into trouble
Taxi drivers in London argue that Uber is an unlicensed taxi service, and up to 5,000 black cab drivers blockaded London’s city centre in a protest last year.
Last month French police raided Uber’s offices and confiscated 1,200 mobile phones, computers and documents as part of an investigation into the uberPOP service, which connects private drivers with passengers, and use of customer data.
Uber drivers have been blocked in by taxi drivers and one reported having his tyres slashed. A Dutch court banned peer-to-peer service uberPOP in December and some unlicensed drivers have since been fined.
After the Madrid taxi association complained about Uber, a judge ordered the company to stop operating in Spain because drivers were unauthorised and taking part in unfair competition.
Uber is illegal in Brussels, and some of its drivers claim their cars have been vandalised. Brussels has announced plans to legalise Uber next year, but under strict regulation.
Following raids in Guangzhou, Chinese police have visited Uber offices in Chengdu in a widening investigation into the company’s operations in China, where authorities have banned drivers of private cars from offering app-based services.
The Canadian province of Quebec and its largest city regard Uber’s service as illegal and in a crackdown the city’s taxi bureau seized 40 cars from drivers in the past few weeks.
The Indian capital banned Uber in December after a woman said she was raped by one of the company’s drivers. But Delhi’s transport department has complained that Uber is still operating despite the ban.
Uber made itself unpopular when it increased fares during the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis last year. The New South Wales government declared Uber’s service illegal last year.
Uber shut down Uber’s service in Kansas last week after state lawmakers voted through legislation that would force the company to do background checks on all its drivers and carry additional car insurance.
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