Transport for London has decided it knows what will keep me safe better than I do. The transport regulator has today refused to reissue Uber’s private hire licence, on the basis of ‘public safety and security implications’.
Let me tell you about security implications as a woman in London. If I come out of a club or bar in the middle of the night, I do not want to be hanging around alone on the pavement for half an hour while my minicab fails to materialise, engaged in a frustrating negotiation with the operator about where exactly my driver is. I don’t want to trawl the streets in the hope of finding a black cab to hail down, only to be told my zone 3 address is too out of the way for them. And if I do manage to convince a driver to take me home, I don’t want to be forced to pay over the odds, because the taxi lobby has successfully bullied any competition off the roads.
Yes, we have the night Tube now – on weekends, on certain lines, and only after a prolonged battle with the unions over whether it was acceptable to hire new drivers to take the antisocial-hour shifts current employees reject. But nighttime transport in London still leaves a lot to be desired, and the knowledge that you can book a door-to-door service without breaking the bank is intensely reassuring. Factor in the ability to track your route and send details of your trip to friends so they know exactly where you are, plus the stark reviewing system that discourages unacceptable conduct, and Uber feels significantly safer than most of the alternatives.
But we all know this isn’t really about public safety, whatever Sadiq Khan might say. The taxi drivers who lobbied TFL so hard for this ruling aren’t actually all that concerned about the security of London passengers in Uber cars. (If they were, they could take a step back, secure in the knowledge that scare stories of accidents and inappropriate drivers would naturally push users away from Uber.)
Instead, this is about the general feeling that Uber, the big bad wolf of the sharing economy, has acted unfairly. Anger at its rule-breaking attitude and the arrogance of former CEO Travis Kalanick has been channeled into lawsuits and protests that portray the company as the enemy of the people. Sexual harassment allegations and scandals surrounding the executive board obviously haven’t helped.
But this anger at the business model is misplaced. Uber isn’t doing anything that innovative companies through the ages haven’t done. They saw a gap in the market, a sector bloated by traditional interests, and injected some much-needed competition. Of course taxi drivers and minicab companies are angry. But if we banned companies any time their actions upset the business status quo, we’d still be sending letters to support the Post Office and riding horses to protect the blacksmith trade.
In terms of how Uber treats its drivers, there is a discussion to be had about the changing nature of work and how technology is disrupting jobs. There are now thousdans of self-employed Uber drivers in the UK who the lack job security and benefits usually associated with work. The same goes for designers, journalists, caterers, actors, warehouse workers, couriers – even airline pilots. This is not about the taxi industry, and figuring out how to tax and support this growing class of worker is a nationwide conversation we should have started years ago. Instead, we are banning a business model because its competitors don’t like it – to hell with consumers.
The Uber debate isn’t about fairness or playing by the rules (if the existing players don’t meet consumer needs, maybe the rules need an update). It certainly isn’t about safety. It’s a cowardly attempt to dodge the hard conversations we need to have about the labour landscape, pinning the blame for an entire economic phenomenon on one controversial company that has the audacity to provide a service people want.
Rachel Cunliffe is comment and features editor at City A.M