On Uber in London

(Note: This mostly comes from something I wrote on Facebook. So I thought I may as well broaden it out and publish it here.)

TFL has decided it will not award an operator licence to Uber from 30 September. In essence, it is saying that Uber must cease operations in London.

TFL says that the reason’s behind this Uber’s approach and a “lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications.”

These include:

  • Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.
  • Its approach to how medical cetificates are obtained.
  • It’s approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks are obtained.
  • Its approach to explaining the use of Greyabll 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.

In response, Uber released the following:

It speaks of 3.5m Londoner who use the app, and the 40,000 drivers they have on their books. They claim their drivers undergo the same background checks as black cab drivers, and that “Greyball” was never used in the UK “for the purposes cited by TFL.”

However I don’t think their response is quite a point by point rebuttal of TFL’s accusations. The Metropolitan Police, for example, say that Uber has in fact failed to report crimes, and claims that it is more worried about its reputation.

Uber’s response also doesn’t explicitly say that “Greyball” was not used in any shape in the UK.

Safety and regulatory issues aside, a lot of people are disappointed. Not the representatives of black cabs of course. They’re delighted.

But what of the 40,000 drivers. They’re going to lose their jobs are they not?

Well, not exactly. First of all, Uber goes out of its way to say that these are not jobs. Uber drivers are self-employed, and as such, have no real protection or employment rights. That obviously saves Uber a lot of money.

Personally I can see both good and bad sides of Uber. They’re revolutionary, but they’re also incendiary. They undercut everyone else in the market, but they do this by effectively subsidising each trip. They can’t burn cash forever, but if they kill the competition, then they have it to themselves.

Black cabs, on the other hand, are protectionist, and that too is unsustainable in the 21st century. Their pricing is too high (although their prices appear even worse if Uber rides are subsidised), and they seem to believe they have god-given rights to the roads ahead of nearly all other vehicles. (Cf. Objections to just about any and all cycle infrastructure).

But Uber users can relaxe. In reality, nothing will change.

Uber can appeal, and eventually win back its licence. It just needs to make some structural changes. All the things TFL called them out for are correctable, and should be corrected. They have behaved badly – driven from the top by a now ousted CEO.

Issues like reporting not reporting crimes would get any cab-firm banned. Uber should expect no difference. Just because you’re big, it does not give you carte blanche to behave as you like.

Uber will appeal this process for months and/or years; fixing the issues and remaining on London’s streets all the while.

Those 40,000 drivers will mostly carry on driving regardless of outcome. Lyft can fill the void if necessary – or all the local mini-cab firms that many of those drivers came from in the first place. But the structure of their work was no more secure as Uber drivers than someone on a zero hours contract working for Sports Direct.

In any case, there are other criticalities.

The number of private hire vehicles in London has skyrocketed, from 49,400 in 2009/10 to 87,400 in 2016/17. That creates congestion, and also has an impact on London’s abysmal air quality. Even a Toyota Prius burns petrol some of the time. Those volumes are unsustainable, and TFL is no doubt looking at ways to limit those numbers.

And like other groups, Uber’s long-term plan is to do away with human drivers altogether. How long it’ll be before we see self-driving cars on London’s complex street system is anyone’s guess. I’d expect it’ll be later rather than sooner given our medieval road layouts. But it’ll come, and Uber is spending big. And at that point it will revolutionise transport, and indeed, transport ownership. And jobs like driving will be gone forever.

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