There are two ways of looking at Transport for London’s decision not to renew Uber’s private hire licence.
On the one hand, it is a principled attempt to tackle a business that is widely regarded as having played hard and fast with the rights of working people and which has paid lip service, at best, to health and safety matters.
It can also be seen, in this light, as a defence of traditional skills as practised by London’s world-famous black cab drivers.
On the other hand, it is a Luddite attack on a consumer-friendly business that was bringing down the cost of travel for 3.5 million Londoners – an attack that will also hit between 30,000 and 40,000 Uber drivers directly in the pocket, in some cases depriving them of a living altogether.
As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between.
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Transport for London is hardly acting in isolation here as a number of other countries – including Japan, Taiwan, Germany and Italy – have also either banned or placed restrictions on Uber.
And yet this decision immediately puts the capital at odds with 40 other British towns and cities that have licensed Uber.
The inevitable upshot of TfL’s decision is that, assuming Uber loses its appeal against the decision to deprive it of a licence, Londoners are going to have to pay more to travel around town in a taxi.
Uber was significantly cheaper than both black taxis and other minicab operators, so this is going to have an inflationary impact.
The refusal of a significant number of black taxi drivers to accept payment in anything other than cash is somewhat at odds with a place that is trying to present itself as a forward-looking, tech-savvy, go-getting global city.
Technology has put numerous other occupations, previously regarded as skilled, out of work and brought down their wages in the process.
In an era in which most cars are routinely equipped with GPS, the years spent by traditional black taxi drivers learning “The Knowledge” – the ability to decide the quickest and most efficient route without referring to a map – have been rendered surplus to requirements.
In spite of all this, TfL has effectively decided to protect the rights of London’s black cab drivers and put them above any right Londoners might have to get around their city more cheaply.
Some will argue this decision, potentially, is turning the clock back to the bad old days when, 20 years ago or so, it was difficult to obtain a black cab late at night and Londoners were driven into the arms – quite often literally so – of an illegal minicab tout.
Others who have fallen foul of Uber’s “dynamic pricing” model – under which fares vary depending on supply and demand – will argue that traditional black cabs are actually cheaper than Uber a lot of the time.
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On the issue of passenger safety, some Uber users will argue that, as the identity of the driver can be clarified through the app, they are safer than they would be travelling in a traditional taxi where the man behind the wheel is someone like John Worboys, who was jailed in 2009 for drugging and sexually assaulting at least a dozen of his passengers.
The big unknown is the extent to which this decision will have a wider impact on the so-called “gig economy”.
An awful lot of time has already been spent in the courts and in industrial tribunals on seeking to establish the status of Uber drivers.
Uber has always maintained that drivers are not its employees, nor contractors, as it is merely a platform that brings together taxi drivers and passengers and takes a cut of the fare.
The Taylor Review of employment practices earlier this year suggested a new status of “independent contractor” for those working with businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo.
But the status of Uber drivers, and other gig economy workers, is no clearer as a result of this ruling and it is striking that the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, which previously won a landmark hearing against Uber in an employment tribunal, has reacted with horror to the ruling.
Image: Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned earlier this year
The other big unknown is the impact this decision may or may not have on Uber’s business.
The company was already at something of a crossroads – in June, its co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned as chief executive following months of drip-drip revelations that revealed the company had a corporate culture riddled with sexism and bullying.
His successor, the former Expedia chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi, is highly regarded on Wall Street.
But it is hard to see how he can completely overhaul Uber’s culture – cited by TfL as a reason for not renewing its licence – when Mr Kalanick remains on the board and retains a 10% stake in the business.
In short, then, this is a decision likely to polarise opinions.
For every person praising London mayor Sadiq Khan – who will be inextricably linked with this decision – as standing up to an unethical, bullying company, there will be another criticising him for caving in to the vested interests of the black cab lobby, for pushing up transport costs for ordinary Londoners and for generally being on the wrong side of history.
In the meantime, there are tens of thousands of Uber drivers – many of them tied into leasing contracts on their taxis – wondering how they are going to make a living after 13 October, the date when, if its appeal is unsuccessful, Uber’s cars will have to come off London’s roads.
Source: SKY News