(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).
Some people still think there are too many cabs on the streets – or more accurately, too many cab drivers. In fact, driver numbers are reducing, and there are fewer people starting the Knowledge. Drivers are retiring, and fewer would-be cab drivers are prepared to sign up for three years of blood, sweat and tears; not knowing what kind of future the trade holds for them. Their big question is: will Uber destroy the London cab trade?
Uber’s aim is clear: to build up a power base of investors and government lobbyists, then use loopholes in taxi and private hire legislation in order to dismantle taxi and private hire operations around the world (well done to Reading and North Tyneside for having the courage to ban Uber).
There’s been a lot of talk about English tests for private hire drivers, but it’s a minor factor. It might slow licensing down, but other factors are likely to prove more decisive. The employment status factor is interesting: should Uber lose their appeal and be forced to treat its drivers as employees, they will have to provide the rights and benefits that apply to regular employees. Uber can currently undercut taxis and competing PH firms, but if they are forced to grant employment rights it’s a different story. Uber’s business model will be destroyed and it won’t be able to sustain cheap fares.
Then there’s the publicity angle. Many high-ranking employees have left in the wake of negative publicity: over twenty staff members left following allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination of female staff. The high number of sex attacks Uber’s drivers have been accused of has also caused concern: the Met recently reported a 50% rise in allegations against Uber drivers. One of the most alarming incidents concerned the rape of a woman in India by an Uber driver. The driver who attacked the woman was jailed for this, and other crimes; but not before an Uber executive obtained the medical records of the victim in order to discredit her. The executive responsible was sacked after journalists discovered details of the incident.
As the bad publicity continued, Dodgy Dave Cameron’s friend, Rachel Whetsone found it too hot and left. More recently, CEO Travis Kalanick, was forced to resign when investors turned against him.
The biggest turning point will be when investors start to pull out of this increasingly toxic brand. Reports suggest that those trying to sell their investment are finding it hard to find buyers.
There’s such a vast conveyor belt of drivers required to maintain Uber’s model of over-supply, that if licences are capped, the company will be weakened. It will no longer be able to guarantee a car within three minutes – a pretty impressive selling point to be fair. Its drivers might be less inclined to put up with current working practices should they become more sought after.
The good news is that private hire licensing is already slowing down. It’s reached saturation point where too many drivers are chasing too few jobs and no-one is making any money. Unless numbers continue to fall, a cap on licences looks inevitable. No-one thinks having 117,000 mini-cabs on the streets of London is a good thing, and if that figure rises, something will have to be done.
London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, isn’t happy about the traffic mayhem and pollution that unrestricted PH licensing has caused. Mr Khan and the government have been arguing whether the Mayor actually sought a change in the law to restrict PH numbers. Mr Khan said he’s “written a number of times” to Transport Under Secretary, Andrew Jones. Mr Jones replied in the House claiming he’d “made no formal representations on capping the number of private hire licences in London to the Secretary of State or Department of Transport Ministers.” Who should we believe? This sounds like Cameron’s government denying they’d put pressure on Boris when he wanted to curb Uber. We’ve seen the emails, Dave.
Uber, as they stand now, can put competing PH firms out of business in the race to the bottom. We’re in a stronger position as we can ply for hire in the traditional way. Our numbers might be gradually reducing, but there’s still a trickle of new blood through the Knowledge system. Those of us left standing will still be able to respond to street hails and service the many hotel and station ranks. That work won’t necessarily go to Uber.
If PH licensing is capped, the number of drivers will reduce dramatically. Most people don’t stay in the PH trade for long. There will be a queue of drivers attempting to apply, but those already licensed will still renew their licence every year. Those who stop driving a mini-cab will keep their licence should they ever want to return in the future. A PH license also serves as a Congestion Charge season ticket: who’s going to give that up? (something else that needs looking at).
I don’t think TfL have the courage to refuse Uber another licence: there’s too much pressure from powerful people. But I think things will become less favourable for the PH trade anyway; particularly for Uber, when their investors desert the sinking ship. With Uber gone, or at least greatly weakened, many of its drivers might return to the less rapacious PH companies. Things might settle down in the taxi and private hire world and go back to where they were a few years’ ago. Wasn’t it great when all we had to worry about were Addison Lee?