Sunday, 24 September 2017

Uber loses its licence, London loses its grip!

Congratulations to everyone complaining about Transport for London's (TFL) decision not to renew Uber's licence. You have managed to make Londoners look like a pack of spoilt brats, demanding cut-price taxi fares as if it's a human right on par with food, water and shelter. Honestly, the way people have been carrying on, anyone would think that before Uber, Londoners simply never left their homes. Uber did not rescue London from being a bizarre city of hermits.

As ever, nuance has been the first casualty of the inevitable debate, especially in regard to the risk of sexual assault in an Uber taxi. According to a Freedom of Information request by the Sun newspaper last year, 32 of the 154 allegations of sexual assault against taxi and private hire drivers over a one-year period were against Uber drivers. That's an allegation every 11 days. TFL has raised concerns about Uber's lack of expediency in referring sexual assault allegations to the police.

This led to mindless whataboutery. "What about sexual assaults by drivers of black cabs?" is the cry that has rattled all over the internet over the last few days. Obviously, it is not OK for black cab drivers to sexually assault people either. Or for anyone to sexually assault people. It is stunning that this even needs to be said.

I have a novel idea. How about we strive for a world where nobody gets sexually assaulted in taxis? The "my preferred taxi service is less rapey than your preferred taxi service" chatter is race-to-the-bottom nonsense. 

Then there are the other scandals that led to TFL not renewing Uber's licence. Thousands of background checks on drivers have been deemed invalid, and there have been instances of drivers paying dodgy GPs for falsified medical certificates, and concerns about the possible use of Greyball software. In the US, Uber has faced allegations of Greyball software to identify when local officials were using the app and ignoring their requests for a taxi in case they were seeking to find drivers operating in areas where they were not licenced. Uber has denied using this software in the UK.

Of course, plenty of people have accused those who are supporting TFL of being anti-consumer choice. There are plenty of apps that you can use instead of Uber - Gett, Kabbee, MyTaxi, Addison Lee, Taxify, Taxiapp... People whining about a black cab monopoly don't appear know what a monopoly is or they don't seem to realise there are plenty of alternatives to taking a black cab.

And if you have the Uber app, you obviously have a smartphone so if all else fails, you can use your damn life skills to simply Google licenced minicab companies in the area and make a phonecall. Retro, I know. On top of all this, London has one of the world's best public transport systems - every time I travel anywhere, I come home with a renewed appreciation of the tube and red buses.

Indeed, even the narrative that Uber is a benevolent company for the people is a myth. This is a company that has indulged in price gouging during terror attacks. It is a business model that is designed to reduce consumer choice by undercutting other taxi companies into oblivion or merely replacing one monopoly with another, as has been the experience in Sydney. Anyone wringing their hands over potentially 40,000 Uber drivers being out of work is being ridiculous - Uber's modus operandi will result in drivers from other companies losing their jobs.

On top of all that, many Uber drivers work for the app to supplement their income from other low-paid jobs. According to Uber's own research,  almost 40% of their drivers have another job. This means that there are a lot of drivers out there for whom one job is not enough to pay the bills, particularly in London. And if you don't care about the low wage culture that has swept through Britain's labour market, consider that many Uber drivers will be driving people around after knocking off from another job. Are you happy to be driven home by a driver from a company where there is a very high chance that he or she will be completely knackered behind the wheel?

If Uber is taken off the roads next month, plenty of their drivers will be able to find work with other taxi companies. The demand is there in a city the size of London. According to today's news, Uber could make concessions in regard to TFL's demands for improved safety and better working conditions for drivers in order to get its licence renewed. This strikes me as a far more sensible use of their time over the next few weeks than challenging the decision - that would truly put the livelihoods of drivers in limbo.  

My hunch is that Uber will stay on the road - and if it does so with improved safety procedures for passengers and better conditions for drivers, that is a win for everyone. And then Londoners can find something else to whine about, because we always do.  

Photography by Thierry Manac'h'/Flickr

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