Currently Uber has 18,000 drivers (or registered partners as Uber likes to refer to them) in London alone. By offering cheaper fares and the ability for customers to effectively hail cabs via GPS and an app, traditional black cab drivers have accused Uber of undermining their business by flouting the law and allowing unlicensed drivers. In May they took to the streets to protest about it, bringing traffic to a standstill in parts of central London.
Into this debate has weighed Boris Johnson, caught between proponents of Uber, who say it is offering customers reasonable taxi fares in the capital and creating thousands of jobs, and those who say it is destroying the black cab profession and pushing drivers into poverty.
Transport for London (TfL) are currently in a high court row with Uber over whether its app acts as a meter, something which would make it illegal in the capital, as only licensed cabs are allowed to operate meters. Uber has retaliated, claiming that TfL is just trying to protect black car drivers by curtailing its business.
TfL has also launched a consultation to consider proposal to force Uber drivers to wait at least 5 minutes before picking up a booked fare (the average time is 3 minutes).
It’s worth noting at this point that, as well as being Mayor of London, Boris Johnson is also chair of TfL. This clearly puts him between a rock and a hard place, with some accusing him of supporting a black cab ‘cartel’.
The fine line Johnson is walking can be seen in his Telegraph column, where he starts by defending ‘rampant, frothing, free-market Conservatives’ who ‘hate cartels’, referring to the TfL’s attempts to curb Uber practices and protect London cabbies.
He goes on, however, to talk passionately about the professional black cab industry, by pointing out the distinction between private hire vehicles and hackney carriages, whose drivers must pass ‘the Knowledge’ before they are allowed to drive. Johnson then goes onto openly accuse Uber’s technology as facilitating law breaking:
“You only have to consider the habits of many Uber minicabs – not all, but many – to see that this law is systematically broken; and that is because technology makes it so easy for it to be broken.”
The ability for technological progress to constantly disrupt traditional industry is a historical fact not lost on Johnson. His calls seem to be for a balanced approach, where both parties can coexist; Uber as a convenient and cheap service and black cabs as a highly professionalised institution. Whether this is true intention is another question entirely.