The Paris taxi smackdown

PARIS, France — Chauffeured motorcycles now bill themselves as attractive alternatives to Paris' full-size taxis and in-the-know travelers are using them.

This isn't your typical motorcycle ride. The usual amenities include a thick blanket-like cover to protect one’s legs from cold, a wind- or rain-resistant jacket and a helmet equipped with a built-in headset so passenger and driver can communicate during the journey — or just listen to the radio on personal speakers. As an added touch — and for sanitary reasons — passengers are handed a cloth cap to wear under their helmet.

But the biggest advantage motorcycle drivers offer is one they say a regular taxi cannot.

“What we sell clients is time and time is money,” said Sylvain D’Andrea, 37, who has been ferrying a clientele of mostly hurried businessmen and women for more than two years. The motorcyles can weave through traffic during Paris' rush hours in a way a regular taxi cannot. D'Andrea said he averages about six or seven fares per day. One ride costs from 35 euros ($50) within Paris to 75 euros ($107) for a ride to or from Charles de Gaulle airport.

David Pires, 54, drove a cab for 20 years before selling his license four years ago in order to drive a motorcycle.
(Mildrade Cherfils/GlobalPost)

That's right: The price of a ride on a motorcycle costs about 20 percent more than one in a taxi, which in Paris is often a luxury sedan.

But cab drivers are crying foul over what they say is encroachment on their territory, unfair competition and a threat to their livelihood. Adding their voices to the chorus of disgruntled workers this month, a few hundred cab drivers brought traffic to a crawl by driving at minimum speeds from the airports to the center of Paris during a protest they called "operation escargot," or "operation snail."

The strike was called by the Syndicat de Defense des Conducteurs du Taxi Parisien (Union to Defend Parisian Taxi Drivers). The other main trade unions did not join the strike although they said they supported the taxi drivers' effort.

Taxi drivers already accuse motorcycle transporters of not abiding by the rules, which prohibit motorcycles from having ostentatious logos displayed on their two-wheeled vehicles or from using the word “taxi” in any part of their name or promotion, even though most clients refer to them colloquially as “taxi-motos.”

Taxi drivers were protesting a government proposal to attribute free livery licenses to businesses even though it can take up to 17 years for an individual to acquire one; the withdrawal of a permit from any driver who accumulates six violation points at once; and a measure to allow shuttle buses and motorcycles to load passengers from airport taxi stands.

The strike resulted in a meeting with the prefect of police that allowed the drivers to air their grievances ahead of any new provisions being adopted. “It was what we hoped for,” said Hassan Mounir, the treasurer of the striking union who was briefed about the meeting since he could not attend. “Our protest bore fruit; they listened to us.”

New guidelines stipulate that companies won’t receive free licenses. Instead they will be allocated in 2010 to 223 drivers on a waiting list, the union announced in a release following the protest. In addition, only drivers who repeatedly flout road rules will face the possibility of losing their driving permit. And motorcycle and shuttle drivers now risk a hefty 15,000 euro ($21,000) fine and six months in prison for solicitation.

“They’re supposed to have a reservation to pickup clients but unfortunately they come to solicit,” Mounir said, of the offending motorcycles. Taxi drivers typically have to idle at the airport for at least two hours if they want to pick up a return fare into the city, said Mounir, who has driven a cab for the last six years. “We don’t have the right to solicit; we can be sanctioned and lose 10 days of work.”

Franky Lirus, who has been in the motorcycle business since 2002 and now works for himself, said a few bad apples are not representative of the bunch. Furthermore, he said, the same car drivers who are protesting against the motorcycles don’t really want the sector to be regulated since that would legitimize the competition.

The Ministry of the Interior regulates the taxi sector while the motorcycle drivers say they mostly police themselves, mounting efforts like equipping their vehicles for bio-ethanol fuel and even joining forces to set up a counter inside Paris' Orly airport for clients to make reservations. “Even without a law, we exist,” said Lirus.

Mounir said about 16,000 four-wheel taxis operate in Paris. Motorcycle drivers said their ranks were only about 300 deep, “a drop of water” in comparison, said D’Andrea. And since the two kinds of businesses attract different clientele, what’s the problem with free enterprise?

“We offer a service that they cannot,” said Lirus, 41. “We can’t steal their clients.”

David Pires, 54, drove a cab for 20 years but four years ago he sold his license, which can cost upwards of 180,000 euros ($257,000), in order to drive a motorcycle. He didn’t like being stuck in traffic all the time and now says a pick up from the airport into Paris that might have taken him over an hour during rush hour in a car now takes half the time in a motorcycle, and he makes the same or even a little more money.

“If there are strikes, motorcycle taxis work a lot,” Pires said.