Image: Unsplash - Brunel Johnson

Why we shouldn’t lament the loss of Uber

The move by TFL not to re-license Uber’s London cab-hailing service, on the grounds that the company was found “not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence”, comes in the context of growing attempts to regulate the £70bn Silicone Valley firm. The predictable battle-lines have been drawn: Mayor of London Sadiq Khan backed TFL’s decision, as did employment rights campaigners, and the trade body for the capital’s black-cab drivers; Uber itself, and Theresa May have come out strongly against the verdict.

Uber’s 3.5m user figure has been used to argue that it the firm provides a positive service to the city. While the app is certainly convenient, the company’s business model is undeniably negatively impacting London life. Uber threatens the livelihoods of professional cab drivers; in fact legislation against Uber in Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria followed protests and strike action from professional taxi drivers.

This issue is particularly pertinent in London, where black cabbies are of the highest standard in the world, and have to pass ‘The Knowledge’ following a three year education where drivers must memorise the entire map of Greater London.

Uber appears to be treating drivers like employees now that it suits them, after denying the point stringently

Uber’s CEO, and the app’s supporters, have expressed concerns that London’s 40,000 Uber drivers will be left without work. But Uber has consistently argued that it is a social media platform, merely connecting self-employed drivers to passengers through their app, rather than an employer. This has allowed Uber to put the onus on drivers to provide fuel and a vehicle, whilst denying the legal rights afforded to employees and claiming up to 30% commission on fares.

Uber appears to be treating drivers like employees now that it suits them, after denying the point stringently. This makes Uber’s discussion of their level of employment seem less like genuine concern for Londoners livelihoods and more like a hostage situation.

It seems clear that Uber is far from perfect, but are we stuck with them? Surely those passionate about market competition will cry “no!”. Indeed, the convenience of a GPS based ride-hailing app has not proved difficult to recreate and improve in areas that have kissed Uber goodbye. Fasten charges a flat commission per ride, while RideAustin, a non-for-profit ridesharing firm (that also arose after Uber’s fall) charges no commission.

If TFL capitulates to public and political pressure based on the arguments being made, this could set a very troubling precedent

Furthermore, London has one of the largest and most comprehensive bus networks in the world, with 8000 buses running on 700 bus routes, as well as 20 train lines and around 70,000 non-Uber private hire vehicles and cabs; no one will find themselves stranded if Uber leaves London. So Uber mistreats and underpays its drivers, undercuts professional drivers and shows contempt for the safety of their passengers.

If TFL capitulates to public and political pressure based on the arguments being made, this could set a very troubling precedent. If a company can get away with illegal and unethical behaviour simply because it has a lot of customers and employees, this sends out the message that the richest corporations are above the law in London.

However, while it’s clear that we don’t need Uber, it would be a mistake if TFL went no further than the ban, after all, Uber became so successful for a reason. London needs to reverse the impact of austerity and privatisation on its public transport network, providing higher quality, cheaper and greener services and reintroducing lost transport jobs, such as ticket office workers at tube station. While Austin’s rideshare services are exciting, the private sector inherently lacks democracy or a sufficient focus on environmentalism. Londoners should demand a network of environmental cabs owned and controlled by its users and drivers.

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