Who’s celebrating Uber’s eviction from London?

A hand holding a Samsung phone with an Uber logo on display, in front of a Ford steering wheelEarlier this week the minicab firm Uber, which allows people to hire cabs using an app which calculates the fare to their destination, lost its licence to operate in London and will have to cease operations here as of the end of the month unless it appeals (which it probably will) in which case it could continue to operate into next month. This will mean getting a cab ride in London will become either more complicated or more expensive, as minicabs have to be booked in advance and cannot be flagged down in the street, while taxis or black cabs, which can be, are expensive to ride even short distances. The cancellation of its licence by Transport for London, the transport authority overseen by the mayor, was because it was not “fit and proper” to hold a private hire licence on public safety grounds; the decision has been criticised by a lot of women who said it was the only way they could rely on getting home at night, as well as by black and Asian people who said that problems with minicabs and black cabs, whose drivers often refused to stop for them, made Uber the only way they could get a cab at all.

The BBC’s article has a graph showing how the numbers of minicab and taxi licences changed from 2005 to this year: there were fewer than twice as many minicab licences as taxi licences in 2005 and the number of minicab licences fell slightly before 2007 but began rising sharply after that and has risen considerably since 2013 (Uber started operating in 2013), while the numbers of taxi licences rose only slightly until 2013 and has fallen by 15.4% (25,200 to 21,300) since 2015, this being in large part because they cannot get enough business anymore because of competition from Uber. There are a lot of people who will shed no tears about this, because they have come across a lot of “old white cabbies” who are opinionated and racist and there have even been incidents of white “black cab” drivers racially abusing Muslim Uber drivers, but in fact not all black cabbies are white (although more than two-thirds of them are, compared to just 18.3% of private hire drivers), and those of other ethnicities and creeds are feeling the pinch as well, many giving up because driving a cab no longer pays the bills despite the investment they made in gaining their licence and hiring the vehicle (which must be one of about three specific large cars).

If TfL are going to simply ban Uber or they withdraw out of unwillingness to comply with public safety or minimum wage laws, someone had better come up with a replacement pretty quickly, because the cab trade in total provides only a fifth of the number of vehicles the minicab trade does and the cost of a ride, even to the nearest main railway station, let alone home, is well outside of most people’s price range (there are apps available to hire taxis, but an app does not put vehicles on the road). TfL regularly runs campaigns against unlicensed minicabs (albeit heavily focussed on women and rape, rather than concerns about unroadworthiness and rip-offs), yet before Uber came along the available options were just inadequate — there aren’t enough parking spaces even for ride sharing, the pre-booked minicabs were all booked, the Night Bus was packed and/or didn’t go where you needed (and it was dark), most National Rail lines didn’t have night trains, and as has been widely complained of by Black, Asian and disabled people travelling in London (as Sunny Singh noted on Twitter), the black cabs often drove on by. Yet saturation Uber coverage is not sustainable either; they rely on contract drivers who, as an ongoing legal case demonstrates, are not guaranteed a minimum wage and many of the drivers remain on benefits. If the company insists on relying on that business model, they cannot be allowed to operate.

Yet the London taxi/minicab model is out of date; it is made for the age of the paper map and the phone box. It’s 2017 and it’s the age of the app-enabled smartphone and the sat-nav; phone boxes have been disappearing everywhere. Of course, it’s right that a cab driver should have to have knowledge of the city or region he’s operating in, but that doesn’t justify an onerous test which was designed to maintain a cartel and keep “upstarts” and outsiders out (hence the white domination) rather than maintain a good service. And some of the privileges of the black cab are unjustifiable; they should not be the only cabs allowed to drop passengers (as opposed to pick them up) on Red Routes, if this is where they live, and they should not be allowed to delay traffic at a green light to pick up a fare. The taxi system in London needs a huge overhaul.

Yet there has been a petition to “save Uber” from people only concerned about its benefits to customers and not about its poor safety record, its underpaying of drivers and the way it makes it impossible for cab driving to be a living-wage occupation for everyone. According to Clive Peedell of the National Health Action Party, this petition has received more than 500,000 signatures in under 24 hours, while a “save the NHS” petition took weeks to get that far. That’s unacceptable. I won’t be signing, because the same rules have to apply to Uber as to everyone else and if they won’t follow them because it’s not profitable for them, someone else will replace them fairly quickly now that the tech world knows the demand is there. There’s still enough technological know-how (and money) in London, although if Uber is going to be shut down on a “cold turkey” basis this month or next, the pain is going to be huge. I suggest giving them six months and then pulling the plug, if they have not cleaned up their act by then, by which time a home-grown replacement could have started up.

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