(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. Some edits were made in the published version).
I sure picked the right week to quit talking about Uber: but it’s the big issue of the day, and it’s going to continue for some time yet. So, here are just a few thoughts about TfL’s decision not to renew Uber’s licence.
Firstly, Uber should never have been licensed in the first place. They call themselves a tech company, yet they were licensed as a private hire operator. Either they are a tech firm incorrectly licenced, or they are a PH operator, subject to the responsibilities that they have so far evaded. Either way, their licence is in breach. It was clear Uber intended to ply for immediate hire through their app, and they even admitted that they don’t take advance bookings! If they don’t take advance bookings, they are operating illegally, as private hire cars must be pre-booked. They admit they still don’t have a landline on which they can be contacted: as far as I understand it, this is a legal requirement for an operator.
TfL have been quiet about what constitutes plying for hire, because any court case will highlight how negligent TfL have been. TfL knew Uber should never have been licenced, and when the bad publicity started, they tried desperately to tighten up on them. Unfortunately, TfL were then hampered by Dave Cameron and his pals’ cosy relationship with the Uber organisation.
Many people think Uber will make concessions in order to be re-licensed, and that this is just a shot across the bows. Possibly, but what some people forget is that Uber have already had the warning shots: they were given four months in which to improve things. They were expected to use that time wisely and to get their house in order. Uber’s arrogance was such that they behaved even worse. When it transpired they were covering up sexual assault allegations, things got serious and there was an increasing public clamour for something to be done.
I can understand why people use Uber, but did they really think that if Uber ever became the dominant force in the taxi and private hire world, their low prices would remain? Surge pricing isn’t just for Christmas, tube strikes and after terrorist attacks. Their supporters think Uber have a status somewhere between a mini-cab and a taxi. There is no in-between. They are a mini-cab, and they are driven my mini-cab drivers. As one caller to LBC put it: they are a mini-cab company with good PR. They are subject to the same rules that all mini-cab operators must comply with.
Personally I think this is going to drag on for as long as Brexit. I allowed myself a celebratory light ale when I heard the news, but most of us are realistic to know that this isn’t the end. It might be the beginning of the end though. They’re not gone yet, but they are weakened, possibly fatally. I don’t see how they can carry operating in the same way now
Before TfLs decision turned the spotlight on Uber’s affairs, many people thought it was just taxi drivers whingeing. The general public aren’t particularly interested in what constitutes plying for hire, whether a mobile phone can be used as a taxi meter, or whether a London-licensed mini-cab can legally work in Brighton.
People now have a bit more awareness of the taxi and private hire trades, and the roles and responsibilities within them. People know there are issues over Uber drivers’ insurance, questions over their criminal record checking, and that Uber were picking and choosing what criminal allegations to mention to the police. This came from the police themselves, who are thoroughly fed up with them. These were the issues that made people sit up and think. Everyone can now see how government interference and having investors in high places has protected them. Using a footballing metaphor, Uber lost the dressing room.
People can see that the headlines on taxi magazines were true: Uber haven’t been checking criminal records properly. They really were ignoring criminal allegations. An Uber driver really did try to cut someone’s head off at Leytonstone Station while shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Another was nicked after waving a samurai sword around outside Buckingham Palace. Those with a conscience can see how they are exploiting not just tax and VAT loopholes and a lax licensing regime, but also its drivers – who they want to replace with driverless cars ASAP. LBCs James O’Brien likens Uber to a Victorian mill owner. I like the analogy, although mill owners were locally-based and paid their taxes in the UK.
Have Uber’s investors actually made any money yet? They must be getting very nervous. Very nervous. And their corporate account holders. It might even make Tesco think about which partner organisations it promotes. I think the biggest game-changer will be when their investors cash in their chips and Uber are starved of funds. How many lawsuits are they currently involved in? This sort of thing isn’t cheap.
Private hire licensing had already slowed. There will be even fewer drivers clamouring to join Uber now, and many will be trickling back to the mini-cab companies from whence they came. Even if Uber were re-licensed today, they would find it hard to provide the same level of service as before. Uber work on over-supply, and they will find it harder to saturate the market when its drivers desert a sinking ship. As for our future, we need to raise our game and constantly guard against complacency. TfL have recently shown they’re wise to dubious new start-ups, such as Taxify, but others will come and try it on. We need to be ready. When the war is over and the dust has settled, the public will decide who are the best.