Hey London, Uber Needs Fixing - Not Banning

By James O Malley on at

Like many people, I am a hypocrite. I advocate for the most right-on causes. I think we should protect workers rights, and stand up to the immense powers of the corporations. I vote for politicians who will stick up for the little guy. But I also enjoy the convenience of Amazon Prime, and its ability to make practically any product appear on my doorstep within 24 hours, even though I know they bully publishers and give people in their warehouses zero-hours contracts. I upload my photos to Google Photos, even though I know that they’re datamining everything about my life from them. And I regularly use Uber to get around when there isn’t a convenient bus… or if I’m feeling lazy, even though… well, everything.

I admit this because I presume I’m not alone. This is what modern capitalism is like. As an accidental neoliberal sellout/centrist/(insert your red-rose-twitter term of abuse here), this is why it massively pains me to write in defence of Uber - a hugely controversial company whose services I have enjoyed in the past.

This morning, Transport for London (TfL) made the shock decision not to renew Uber’s license to operate in the capital, saying that the company is not “fit and proper” to operate. Uber’s current license expires on the 30th September, so in just over a week, you might find yourself unable to summon a ride home after a late night out.

Image: Flickr

In the immediate term, Uber has said that it will appeal, so there might even be a court battle. There will - inevitably - also be a bunfight in the media as both sides seek to justify their decisions to the public at large. So while this happens, Uber will probably continue operating - unless it decides to abandon London all together. (Something it has done before to cities that it has found uncooperative.)

In a press release explaining the decision, TfL cites a number of concerns with the company, such as its approach to reporting serious criminal offences, medical checks, and criminal record checks. Uber’s use of “greyball” software that prevents regulators from being able to properly check out its services.

These are all serious problems - and Uber is far from the good guy in this scrap, having previously had a - let’s say conflicted - relationship with regulation at best. In recent years for example, the company has come under persistent criticism for the way it classifies drivers - there is a debate about whether they should be treated like employees, with all of the working rights that entails, or whether they’re more like independent contractors who can be hired and fired on a whim, with no need for regular wages. You can easily guess Uber’s views.

But even given this, I don’t think an outright ban on Uber is a good idea for one fundamental reason: Uber - as a concept - is a better way of doing taxi services than what existed before.

Crossing Political Divides

Before Uber, if you wanted a cab, you had two options: standing in the street and hoping to flag down an expensive black cab — something that would only work in the very centre of the city where the cabs are ubiquitous — or taking your chances with a minicab from a small cab company, meaning more hoops to jump through for the customer, more chance of requiring a cash payment and in my experience, poorer quality cars.

Uber changed this - and meant that it was now possible to easily get a ride home from pretty much anywhere in Greater London, by a means that was slightly more affordable to the average Londoner. And this is undeniably a boon to transport and mobility for the supposed three million Londoners who have made use of Uber’s services.

Uber has also already changed black cabs: the only reason they now accept credit cards is because of pressure from their rival.

What’s going to be interesting over the next few days and weeks is seeing the debate play out along not-completely-obvious political divides. Much like how the EU referendum wasn’t a left/right split, the divisions over Uber are likely to be similar.

For example, as a result of the decision, work for Uber’s 40,000 drivers in the capital suddenly has a big question mark hanging over over it. I’d say that they’d be made unemployed - but, of course, Uber doesn’t think that they are employed in the first place. In any case, a not insignificant number of people are going to take a hit in the pay packet. Meanwhile, there are only 20,000 black cab drivers. It’s curious that the anti-Uber cause was so aggressively pushed by the long-standing black cab union and the likes of GMB - with seemingly little regard for the thousands of Uber drivers, many of whom are not native English speakers or who are immigrants, and are less able to unionise. (This inability to unionise is also Uber and capitalism’s fault, more on this in a moment.)

The writer Sunny Singh also points out that Uber is “life support” for many people of colour - particularly women. Sophie Petzel describes how Uber has enabled her, a woman who lives alone in the suburbs, to feel safe when travelling home at night. She won’t be the only one. Essentially then, the straight “evil corporation vs the poor” arguments perhaps do not reflect the nuances of Uber’s impact on London.

Catching Uber

While the criticisms TfL makes are certainly valid, this is in a sense analogous to the horse lobby a century ago agitating against the introduction of cars. For several decades, there was no alternative to the ubiquity of a hackney carriage, and no GPS to replace “The Knowledge”, the famously encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s roads that black cabbies are required to master. When cars first arrived, the response by regulators wasn’t “ban cars” - but was eventually the far more sensible “insist on seatbelts, and enforce speed limits”. This meant that we were able to take advantage of this amazing new technology (cars!), but were also able to protect people.

While it is perhaps sad that the black cab, an icon of London, is being rendered redundant, surely it makes more sense for the state - whether the government, the Mayor of London or TfL - to step in, not to block technological progress, but to support people hurt by the change and to regulate the new system instead? Rather than protect the black cabs, drivers should be offered retraining opportunities. Rather than banned, Uber should instead be compelled to get its act together and meet the safety requirements. Perhaps the Mayor or the government should instead focus on supporting Uber drivers and other “gig economy” workers unionise, so Uber’s overreach can be more effectively countered?

If we’re lucky, today’s ban won’t have been announced out of a desire to banish Uber from our streets - but instead is just TfL’s idea of an aggressive negotiating posture. Here’s hoping the two sides can resolve it before London is forced to take a step back in time.