What’s Really Going on with Uber in London

3 minute read
| Analysis

LONDON – When Uber pulled up in London in 2012  it was unclear where it would fit in the city’s transport mix. The city’s recent decision to pull Uber’s operating license has inflamed these tensions once again. The UK’s capital has an extensive ecosystem of buses, trains, and, crucially, black taxis. More than 3.5 million Londoners now use the service. 40,000 people have chosen to become Uber drivers.

Here’s what’s really going on with this newest development.

So what happened to Uber in London?

Last week Transport for London (TfL) announced it would not be renewing Uber’s operating license, which is due to expire at the end of September. Without it, Uber cannot legally operate in the city.

In a press statement the regulator said:

TfL considers that Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues [that] have potential public safety and security implications.

These include:

  • Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.

  • It’s approach to how medical certificates are obtained.

  • It’s approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained.

  • It’s approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London – software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.

London’s Mayor, who chairs the TFL board, backed the decision. Mayor Sadiq Kahn, from the opposition Labour Party, said: “I fully support TfL’s decision – it would be wrong if TfL continued to license Uber if there is any way that this could pose a threat to Londoners’ safety and security.”

He reiterated the point as he responded to tens of thousands of people signing a petition calling for the decision to be reversed.

Why is Uber so controversial?

Traditional British black cab drivers have a powerful political voice in London. They spend years completing an exhaustive exam called The Knowledge, learning every road in London. The cabbies feel not only is a new, less qualified company encroaching on their turf, but they are gaining an advantage by not playing by the rules. The GMB trade union and the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) represent black cab drivers. Mayor Kahn’s political opponents have been quick to point out that he received £30,000 from the union during his campaign to be London Mayor.

In 2015 black cab drivers claimed Uber was using a meter, The only carriers allowed to this are the black cabs themselves. Though they lost the case, their legal challenges and protests have continued. On numerous occasions, black cab drivers have brought parts of London to a standstill by blocking roads, as reported by TMO.

However, for many in London, pricey black cabs are just too expensive or inconvenient (try hailing one when it is raining….) Uber has revolutionised how young people in particular travel around the city. From personal experience, I would also argue that Uber has totally changed travelling in London for women, especially at night. We don’t have to wait on the street for a mini-cab anymore.

It is worth noting that in other major UK cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester Uber continues to function without an issue. Those cities do not have a powerful black cab industry like London does.

Where next for Uber in London?

Whatever my personal travel preferences, Uber clearly has important issues to deal with. They must demonstrate that they take reporting driver incidents seriously. They must also improve rights and conditions for drivers.

Today, Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, looked to begin that process. He wrote an open letter in which he apologised “for mistakes we’ve made.” He also said, “We will appeal the decision on behalf of millions of Londoners, but we do so with the knowledge that we must also change.”

This contrite tone was not something heard from previous CEO, founder Travis Kalanick. It may help Khosrowshahi as he pushes to meet with Mayor Kahn to resolve the issue.

Uber is going to appeal the decision in the UK courts and can continue to operate while it does. This journey is going to last a long time.

One Comment Add a comment

  1. wab95

    Charlotte:

    Very nice treatment of this subject.

    Traditional British black cab drivers have a powerful political voice in London. They spend years completing an exhaustive exam called The Knowledge, learning every road in London. The cabbies feel not only is a new, less qualified company encroaching on their turf, but they are gaining an advantage by not playing by the rules.

    This reflects my most recent discussions with cabbies (black cabs) in London. In fact, I’ve found it best not to even get them started on Uber. The one issue that comes up time and again from my read, not just in London, but in Asia (India particularly) and in the US is the issue of driver conduct. I’ve never experienced an incident with any Uber (or Lyft) driver in any country, but have read of local incidents in three continents.

    Given the trend of this model, I think it unlikely, irrespective of Uber’s fate, that it will go away any time soon.

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