Most likely you have heard the news by now:
Uber’s license to continue to operate in London will not be renewed following its expiry on September 30th. They will be appealing the decision.
Transport For London, the government body responsible for the transport system in Greater London, England, delivered its verdict last week, taking many—from Uber itself to its millions of users, by surprise. TFL’s reason for not renewing Uber’s license? It did not deem the company to be a “fit and proper” private car hire operator.
In the days following the decision there has been uproar. Uber started up a petition, and Londoners flocked to it. Today, Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, officially apologised by saying:
“We will appeal [against] the decision on behalf of millions of Londoners, but we do so with the knowledge that we must also change.”
I myself live in London, and the amount of venom I have heard being spat at TFL and at the local black cabs since the decision was announced has at times actually taken me aback—both for the sheer vitriol involved, and for the strange, fallacious reasoning that underlines it. The city has been buzzing with chatter. Everyone has an opinion, and most of those tend to take a form roughly approximating one or more of these:
‘It’s an absolute bloody disgrace! Who do TFL think they are?!’
‘It’s cartel-like behaviour, this. Uber’s cheap and convenient, and it’s cutting into the black cabs’ profits, that’s why TFL stepped in!’
‘It’s the old guard, that’s what it is. They just can’t stand the idea of a new and better technology disrupting the outdated and expensive.’
Let’s start with the first and then move on from there.
Who do TFL think they are?
As a matter of fact, they are the regulatory body that looks after the transport systems in the capital. The name is a give away. Their function is to ensure that the eight million plus, irritable, forever-in-a-rush Londoners have a reliably run, safe, and affordable system that they can use to get around their beloved stinking hell hole. Now, they are not perfect. Travel in London is—like most other things these days—anus-clenchingly expensive. Nevertheless, the public transport network here is one of the most extensive and well-run in the world—often being ranked in the top ten or even five. The tube by itself ferries over one billion journeys per year. Recently, parts of it started operating over a twenty four hour period on Fridays and Saturdays, with expansions to this service to come.
I speak only out of personal experience here, but: I have lived in London virtually my entire life. I’ve not just stayed in one corner of it either; I have lived all over. Over the years I’ve needed to travel from so many point A’s to so many point B’s that I’ve crisscrossed a pretty significant swath of its colossal area. And, almost always, public transport is enough to get the fucking job done. Cabs have rarely figured in my planning. I do confess that taking public transport will often take slightly longer and might involve a bit more walking and sharing your space with other human beings than a cab ride. Luckily, should you need one, cabs are always available. Whether you feel flush enough with cash to hail a black cab, or would prefer to call up a cheaper company or use an app to book a ride, you can always get around on four wheels if you need to. The need for cheap transportation is essential, and while public transport in London is expensive, it is still far cheaper than a cab. And, if you do need a cab, you can easily find a good number of competitively priced choices. Choices that meet some basic minimum standards.
Because that’s the other thing about government agency TFL: It’s there for you. And in the particular case of taxis, its remit is to make sure that any cab company that you may use is a) a responsible employer that treats its employees as it should, and b) a firm that abides by hard-won regulations put in place to ensure the safety of the customers using its service. Corporations are beholden to their bottom line, to maximising return for their shareholders, and literally nothing else. Your ideological mileage may vary, and I’m by no means trying to claim that all government agencies are righteous and benign, but nevertheless that is their role in theory: To protect us from the avarice of corporations and to limit the amount of bodies that they leave in their wake in the drive for profits.
And Uber, like so many of the ‘disruptive’ technologies that are shaking up the status quo, is at its core just that: Another corporation seeking to minimise costs and maximise gains. It seems fresh, but really is just more of the same. It calls its drivers independent contractors rather than employees in order to avoid having to pay them a living wage or provide full benefits; it utilises a rather ingenious arrangement to avoid paying its due in tax; and it aims, by way of providing a cheap and convenient service, to monopolise a market so that it can totally dictate the terms of that market and prevent genuine capitalist competition from thriving. Everything old is new again, and you can’t beat the classics.
The ingenious arrangement referenced above is further explored in this excellent article for Londonconnections.com. In it, Uber’s two-company approach is detailed and described thus:
[O]ver the course of requesting, completing and paying for their journey an Uber user in London actually interacts with two different companies - one Dutch, one British.
The first of those companies is Uber BV (UBV). Based in the Netherlands, this company is responsible for the actual Uber app. When a user wants to be picked up and picks a driver, they are interacting with UBV. It is UBV that request that driver be dispatched to the user’s location. It is also UBV who then collect any payment required.
At no point, however, does the user actually get into a car owned, managed or operated by UBV. That duty falls to the second, UK-based company - Uber London Ltd. (ULL). It is ULL who are responsible for all Uber vehicles - and their drivers - in London. Like Addison Lee or any of the other thousands of smaller operators that can be found on high streets throughout the capital, ULL are a minicab firm. They just happen to be one that no passenger has ever called directly - they respond exclusively to requests from UBV.
This setup may seem unwieldy, but it is deliberate. In part, it is what has allowed Uber to blur the boundary between being a ‘pre-booked’ service and ‘plying-for-hire’ (a difference we explored when we last looked at the London taxi trade back in 2015). It is also this setup that also allows Uber to pay what their critics say is less than their ‘fair share’ of tax - Uber pays no VAT and, last year, only paid £411,000 in Corporation Tax.
In addition to being a fan of the Best Of Corporate Chicanery, Uber has a good collection of some of the unknown albums too, many of which were brought up by TFL in their judgement on their license renewal. The regulatory body licenses around 118,000 minicab drivers, all of which have to pass their conditions before they can serve the public. Uber were pulled up on a number of areas in which they did not meet the requirements necessary to do so, such as:
- Their failure, or slowness in, reporting serious criminal offences.
- Their methodology for obtaining medical certificates.
- Their methods of obtaining criminal background checks.
In all these fields Uber has been found to be wanting, and so undeserving of a license to serve the public.
In addition to the above, TFL also cited Uber’s use of Greyball, a software that has the ability to block access to the app for anyone from regulatory bodies like TFL to law enforcement officials. An article in The Independent cited a New York Times investigation which, ‘found that Uber had been using the secret program to avoid law enforcement in a number of cities, allowing it to operate illegally without detection.’
As per The Independent:
Greyball was designed to identify law enforcement officials, and show them a fake interface that made it much harder to book taxis.
According to the report, the company used a number of techniques to do this. work out which users it should “Greyball”.
For instance, the software analysed people’s credit card information to determine whether or not they had ties with a police union.
It also took into account where the app was being used. People found to be frequently opening and closing Uber in certain areas - such as near government offices - would also be served the fake version of the app.
Uber has, of course, disputed this narrative, but the company’s list of infractions and improper behaviour seems sometime to grow by the week.
So, no. TFL is not in collusion with the black cab cartel in the middle of a dastardly plot aiming to disrupt any disruptive technologies that might come along and dare to innovate. It is a publicly accountable body telling a predatory, irresponsible, monopoly-hungry business that if it intends to keep serving that public it will have to abide by certain regulations. Regulations that are not draconian in the slightest, and that the multitude of other mini cab companies around the capital have no problem obeying. This was TFL’s message: If Uber decide to play by these rules in line with everyone else, they can get their license back. In response, Uber marshalled its powers of PR and harnessed the public’s unbelievable capacity to put convenience above all else, to launch a counter-offensive. It has since softened its tone, but make no mistake, were it not for the presence of regulatory bodies like TFL, corporations would be even more freely untethered than they are now, and even if at first they use that power for apparent good—lower costs, easier service—sooner or later someone pays for that. Service quality stagnates, costs rise, externalities multiply.
At the heart of this all, really, is the question of what kind of society we wish to live in. Do we value workers being fairly rewarded for the job they do? Do we believe that their employers have a responsibility to them, and to the people that they serve? And, one of the more modern problems that we have seen rise up over the last decade or two: How do we deal with firms who provide a platform for a service, but get others to actually provide the service itself? Lines of responsibility must be crystal clear the further ahead we go with such a model.
Obviously, as we move into a more and more automated world where the marginal costs of production tend ever closer to zero and we build ourselves a post-scarcity future (dependent on an unlikely equitable harnessing of technological prowess as this is, it could still happen), these questions are going to become ever more important, especially with the current divide between the rich and poor. They are going to have to be adapted too as time marches on and technology develops.
But thinking about that, and picturing the glorious fully automated space communism that could be our glorious future—that’s a task for another article and another day.
For now we can settle for this:
Uber, don’t be a twat. Behave like everyone else. You’re not special.
Uber users, stop moaning, you mugs. Think for a second.