Uber & London

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Uber is often cast as the plucky upstart, taking on taxi monopolies and cartels on behalf of customers. Some cities artificially restrict the number of taxis. In New York, this drove the price of a taxi medallion to $1m in 2011.

In London, however, the number of taxis (or “hackney carriages”, to use the legal definition) is not limited. Anyone can become a licenced taxi driver, provided they meet the requirements. A prospective London cabbie must spend 3+ years learning the Knowledge (which literally causes their brains to grow bigger) , take an enhanced driving test, invest in a vehicle that meets specific requirements (including the ability to accommodate a wheelchair, and a 25-foot turning circle), commit (under pain of fines) to pick up anybody in the street who hails them if their yellow light is on, and agree to be subject to the fares set by TfL (Transport for London – the body that regulates transport in London).

In return, the government prohibited private hire vehicles (PHVs – i.e. unlicenced taxis/cabs) from picking up customers who hail them in the street or using a taximeter to calculate a fare based on time and distance. In effect, PHVs must be booked in advance and the customer must be able to agree the fare up-front.

Effectively, there was a social contract between London taxi drivers and the government. Taxi drivers had certain advantages over PHV drivers but they were also subject to more onerous licensing requirements. With no restrictions on the number of taxi licences issued in London, the laws of supply and demand dictate the number of black cabs on the streets, and customers get to choose what type of service they want to use.

Then Uber came along.

When Uber began operating in London, the London Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) complained to TfL that Uber’s fares are calculated based on time and distance. TfL referred the matter to the High Court, where the case focused on whether the smartphone-and-app combination used by Uber drivers is a taximeter. The High Court decided that because the calculation of the fare does not happen on the smartphone, but on Uber’s servers, the smartphone is not a taximeter.

I’m not a lawyer but that seems like a loophole to me. To my mind, the real question is not whether a smartphone falls outside an archaic definition of what constitutes a taximeter, but whether Uber drivers should be allowed to charge a fare that is calculated based on time and distance. If the answer to that question is “No”, then the law should be updated to close the loophole.

However, if the answer is “Yes”, the government is effectively tearing up London’s taxi drivers’ social contract, and calling into question the economic viability of becoming a licensed taxi driver. Why bother spending all that time, effort and money if the rules mean that you’ll be operating at a disadvantage?

The worst-case scenario is that black cabs go from being a regular sight on the streets of London to an historical curiosity. That might suit Uber but I don’t think it would be a good outcome for the rest of us. Personally, I like to be able to flag down a cab (even when my phone battery is dead), secure in the knowledge that the cabbie’s done the Knowledge and isn’t just blindly following a satnav directions (which is the difference between getting home in 20 minutes versus being stuck in traffic on Pall Mall and Trafalgar Square for half an hour). I’d be quite happy if the cost of that is to require that Uber set the price of a journey in advance.

The outcome of the current public consultation being conducted by TfL should be a reaffirmation of the social contract with London’s licensed taxi drivers, and a regulatory regime that allows consumers to benefit from innovation, while preserving choice and ensuring that the quality of London’s taxi services doesn’t get dragged to the lowest common denominator.

Written by jackgavigan

October 27, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Innovation

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