The initial horrified response to Transport for London’s decision to remove Uber’s licence to operate in the capital seemed to be rather too focused on the mild inconvenience to its customers. There was a palpable sense that this tech unicorn was a serious source of progress in big city travel, and that its removal would be a step back into the wilderness. Of course, mini-cabs did exist before Uber, and will continue to after Uber is gone, but the revolution brought about by the company’s use of technology is undeniable. The question is: at what cost?
Progress isn’t always a good thing. It does not have to be accepted regardless of its consequences — whether to the safety of passengers, the living conditions of its drivers, the traffic on our roads, or the amount of tax collected by the exchequer.
Since arriving in the capital in 2012, Uber has become a staple due to its ease of use and relatively low costs — but also the feeling of safety that it has offered people, especially women, travelling alone. That you can be picked up where you are, quickly, by a driver whose face, name and rating you can see beforehand is of great comfort to many. Yet it is fears for passenger safety that makes up a large part of TFL’s reasoning for the ban, and it was only in August that Uber was singled out by the Metropolitan police for a failure to promptly report sex attacks by its drivers. The idea that Uber is the safest way to get home may be more one of perception than reality.
The reasons for Uber’s success go far beyond this, though. Uber has broadened accessibility to taxis in much the same way that Ryanair increased access to foreign travel. It’s become a favourite of my generation, who might be able to afford a flat white and avocado on toast, but in London wouldn’t have been able to shell out for a black cab on a night home. That’s not a problem anymore. A quick dip on to the app, and a cheap ride is with you in an instant. The appeal isn’t hard to see — why should private hire cars be the sole preserve of the rich?
But that doesn’t mean the company can be given a free pass. There isn’t a right to cheap taxi travel around cities anymore than there’s one to a 5 pound (Dh25) flight to Malaga, and if a company behaves badly the authorities have to be able to step in, regardless of how inconvenient that may be to users.
And that’s the reason for London’s decision: Uber is not “fit and proper” to hold a licence. After all, digging up dirt on the company is not hard, whether it’s failings on passenger safety, underpaying its drivers (independent contractors of course, not actual “employees”) or the vile sexism of the recently ousted CEO, Travis Kalanick. As my colleague Hannah Jane Parkinson put it, “ If it’s [expletive] behaviour, Uber has probably done it. “
This is a company that has become a byword for Silicon Valley excess — it’s not a business model to admire. This makes the number of left-leaning people bemoaning its possible exclusion from one city slightly surprising. Uber makes multibillion-dollar losses. The much-loved convenience and low prices rely on these losses, and on an excess of driver supply, so there’s always a car available when you need it. This isn’t good for the drivers, and ultimately it won’t be good for the passengers. It’s inevitable prices will rise — the company can’t continue to be loss-making for ever — and one theory goes that this will happen once they’ve driven their competition out of business, and/or developed the driverless cars which will put thousands out of work.
Government should not be in the business of encouraging would-be monopolies — as Sadiq Khan [London mayor] said in welcoming the decision, all companies need to “play by the rules”. And if they do, we all benefit: from not only good services, but also from well-paid staff and large, taxable profits. One shouldn’t expect TfL or the London mayor to do anything that might damage public transport. London’s system, despite the many complaints, is very good. The bus network is wide and affordable, the tube is constantly improving, and the night tube still expanding. The idea of us all travelling around in our Ubers everywhere might seem nice, but we’d soon be snarled in endless traffic if mass public transportation were allowed to wither.
In any case, despite the wailing, the likely outcome of all of this isn’t that Uber will be driven from our roads for ever — or even at all. It will continue to operate until its appeal is heard — who knows how long that may take. This decision is about firing a warning shot to Uber and others like them.
Big, global companies cannot be allowed to behave however they choose, with politicians forced to accept it for fear that the electorate will rebel if a service they’ve grown to love and rely on is stripped. Corporate responsibility is a must. If this decision forces Uber to clean up its act (perhaps even pay more tax) then it should be welcomed on to our streets, a shining beacon of what the creativity of capitalism can achieve, a business to be respected, not one which debases the entire tech sector.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Toby Moses is assistant opinion editor at the Guardian.