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.

Tube Strike Day

An all-out London tube strike seems to be quite a rare thing these days. While individual lines can be affected, or a percentage of services disrupted, the full network doesn’t go down all that often.

But today is one of those days when nearly the entire network has stopped working.

For many it’s a question of whether or not they actually need to be in the office. “WFH” or Working From Home is much more common these days, with many able to work one or more days away from their workplace on a regular basis. A laptop, mobile and internet connection, and you’re all set.

It certainly felt that many must be doing this when I started my commute on a Great Northern train. Aware that people who might otherwise use a tube may travel over to use the national rail service, I was prepared for crowds. But in fact the carriage felt slightly emptier than usual.

The train did fill up though, and by the time we reached Finsbury Park – where hundreds usually disembark – we were instead joined by locals who were looking for a train onwards to King’s Cross. Ordinarily my trains would head underground from here, by way of Drayton Park, and into Moorgate. But those are all shared Underground stations, and therefore they were shut. So trains were all redirected to King’s Cross.

This had the knock-on effect of our train becoming a bit like planes circling Heathrow in a landing pattern at a busy time, patiently awaiting a slot. There are 12 platforms at King’s Cross (Platforms 1-11 and, of course, Platform 0), and they’re ordinarily pretty full. Adding dozens of local commuter services into the mix isn’t easy to manage.

From King’s Cross it was more chaotic. I calmly unfolded my Brompton and then had to navigate hundreds of nomadic commuters, looking lost in an unfamiliar place, and with their noses buried into Google Maps on their smartphones as they worked out their onwards routes.

If you’re a black cab, mini-cab or Uber driver, you’re on duty today, and the roads outside King’s Cross were jammed up with cabs. A long queue of people snaked back at the taxi rank, but it was the weight of traffic rather than lack of cabs that kept the line stationary.

Crossing the Euston Road from King’s Cross without using the underpass is pretty fraught at the best of times. But with the tube station shut it appeared that the underpass was closed as well. Crossing the road means navigating as many as four sets of traffic lights – all separately. Cars have the priority here, not people. My fellow cyclists and I had to use the combined might of all our bells to stop people walking into the road when the lights turned red for pedestrians and ours green.

Many may have hoped to use hire bikes. TFL have upped the number of docks around King’s Cross of late, but they were all empty when I passed, all the spares kept in a nearby warehouse having been hired out. There were still a few bikes temptingly sat in their docks, but as you got nearer, a tell-tale red light showed that they were damaged in some way and not working.

The back streets of Bloomsbury are well suited to cycling, but wayward pedestrians meant there was a constant requirement to “keep your wits about you” as then Mayor Boris Johnson once said untruly of Elephant and Castle.

Walking whilst simultaneously reading your phone is a bad mix at the best of times.

Cars and other motor traffic were less of a problem, for the most part because they were all stationary. I would imagine that for the most part walking rather than taking a bus or car would have been the better bet today.

Some people still took a few too many risks – either because they didn’t usually cycle, or were impatient and late for work. That doesn’t really excuse playing chicken with a car when you’re on a bike. There’s only ever one winner in that game. And nipping behind a reversing lorry, as I saw several do, isn’t too smart either.

If you had managed to pick up a hire bike, you had one further issue – full docks in central London.

Broadly speaking, bike hire commuters come in from a ring around outer London, and dock their bikes near their workplaces in the middle of town. The reverse then happens in the evening. TFL try to manage this by shifting bikes around and freeing up spaces as necessary, but there’s a natural equilibrium usually reached – just enough central docks to manage the commuters. On a day like today, everything is disrupted. I was seeing people looking lost and confused at full docks, vainly attempting to find somewhere with space. A colleague had to travel to Regent’s Park, a good half an hour away, to find somewhere to dock his bike.

At work, talk was about how people “beat” the strike. Walking, for the most part. Someone mentioned their partner paying 4.8x “Surge pricing” on Uber. I bet most of that trip was spent stationary too.

BBC London posted a video that perhaps showed why driving around London doesn’t work:

The population of London increases by 10,000 every single month.

(It’s at 8.7m up 469,000 in four years.)

That explains why we need increased and greater diversity in our transport. Roads get clogged instantly with motor traffic, so that doesn’t work. Cycle lanes do work, and there’s scope for a massive increase in the number of cyclists on the roads. But we could also do with more secure parking facilities.

That’s also why Crossrail is essential, and we need to get a move on with Crossrail 2.

It also means that petty squabbles over who runs London’s transport are ridiculous. One organisation – TFL – needs to be in charge of as much of it as possible, whatever our cyclist-hitting Transport Secretary thinks.

Days like today remind Londoners how much transport is on something of a knife edge in keeping the city working.

Rail Fares: Who’d Benefit From Cutting Them?

Today, most of the country went back to work, or at least began to return judging by the generally quiet commute I had today.

But a new year means new rail fares. Or more to the point increased rail fares.

It’s always worth noting that it’s UK Government policy to reduce rail subsidies. Like most forms of transport, general taxation pays for at least part of our transport needs. And it has been government policy to get rail users to pay for a larger part of the cost of the railways over time. Hence we see above inflation fare increases each year.

Certain routes and fares are capped, but others aren’t. For goodness’ sake, don’t try travelling from London to Newcastle on the spur of the moment!

(Of course, nobody thinks about “subsidies” to road users. New roads are considered “investments.” And no, vehicle licence funds (aka your “car tax”) do not pay for all the roads.)

Anyway, the usual protest groups were out today protesting the ever increasing fares we’re paying, and the increasing proportion of salaries accounted for by commuting costs.

On Twitter, I saw this Tweet from Buzzfeed’s James Ball:

Are rich people really likely to be the big winners if rail fare increases were reigned in?

The data in the Tweet above came from the 2014 National Transport Survey, and it’s worth noting that the numbers refer to the average number of journeys completed by each income group, and not percentages as you might at first believe.

The 2015 data is now available, so for the rest of this piece, I’ll refer to that.

Here’s the equivalent data from that 2015 survey:

The numbers are pretty similar, and would seem to tell the same story. The richest in society make more train journeys. So do they benefit the most?

Of course, these are averages.

But we can also look at the miles travelled:

This shows a similar story – the rich travel further.

But if we use both sets of data, we can look at the average trip length:

Suddenly the data is much closer. It seems that regardless of income level, if you travel by train, your journey will be broadly the same length.

Now this kind of overall data obfuscates things a lot. Buried within it are people who travel once or twice a year perhaps visiting family and going on holiday, and those who travel every day for work.

Other factors need to be considered too. If I’m very poor and in the lowest income level, then I’m likely to be either not in employment, or perhaps only have a part-time job.

The ONS shows that lowest quintile earns a median “final income” of £13,841. It notes that increases in tax credits and Jobseekers Allowances make a difference in this quintile.

If we assume that rail travel is relatively expensive, then it seems likely that anyone at the lowest level of employment is unlikely to travel a great deal, or indeed choose a job that is sufficiently distant the train travel is an optimal travel solution.

In other words, if I live in Croydon, and have a job in central London that gives me an income of just £13,841, I’m not going to be happy to spend £1,704, or 12.3% of my entire income on train fares. I’m going to look for a low-paid local job if I can that minimises my commuting costs.

On the other hand, if I’m in the top quintile with an average final income of £86,768, then spending just 2.0% of my income on my commute is far more palatable.

Just to be clear, this is really all about commuting. 56% of all rail trips are for commuting/business purposes.

But rail isn’t remotely suitable for commuting if there isn’t a line that works for you. It’s perhaps unsurprising that London and the south east see far more rail commuting than other parts of the country, simply because the infrastructure is there.

And note that this excludes tube travel.

With both property prices and earnings higher in the south-east, plus active disincentives to use other forms of transport – notably the car – then these London and home counties travellers significantly skew the results in favour of the wealthier.

Yet increases in rail fares do not solely affect those in the top quintile. All it means is that those transport users – who largely have no other choice of transport to use – are less affected than poorer users.

In many respects, the archetypal “Surrey stockbroker” can moan, but get on afford to pay for their trainfare. But a nurse who has to live far outside of central London through high property prices has pay the fares or look for a job elsewhere.