Uber v. TFL: A Brief Explainer

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Google Images

Panic on the streets of London…

Thus was the reaction that engulfed the capital’s usually sober masses, as it was announced that TFL had chosen not to renew Uber’s licence, which ran out on the 30th September 2017.

What on earth is Uber?

A good question. Uber is a taxi company that operates through an app. You send your location and the app coordinates your location with Uber drivers nearby. It is not, as some have claimed, an innovative technology company, bringing the fresh scent of ‘Silicon Valley’ to our less fragrant shores. It is a taxi company with an app. As simple as that.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Google
Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Google

Is it safe?
In theory. But TFL cites concerns for passenger’s safety in its statement explaining the decision. Information obtained by The Sun newspaper under: ‘Freedom of Information’, last year appeared to reveal that the Metropolitan Police investigated 32 drivers for sexual assault/rape from May 2015- May 2016 alone.

It also appears that Uber’s medical checks have been lacklustre at best. Another key reason for the decision, TFL claims, is that their medical and DBS checks on potential drivers are inadequate and must be addressed.


Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Google
Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Google


So it’s just about safety?

Not entirely.

There’s also an issue about regulation. Uber has admitted to using a software called ‘Greyball’ in the past, which uses personal data of people suspected of being attached to local Government in areas where they are not licensed. This allows drivers to avoid these customers, thus avoiding potential sting operations designed to enforce licensing laws.

Sadiq Khan (the current Mayor of London, for those currently living under a millennial sized rock) argued in The Guardian newspaper that: ‘all companies in London must play by the rules and adhere to the high standards we expect’.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Google
Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Google

Right. So why the outrage?
I can think of a few reasons for the wave of anger currently still flooding London:

  1. Some people just don’t like the Government regulating businesses. Fair play to them. But TFL, like it or not, set the rules in London, so Uber has to play ball. It is just one of those fairly inoffensive things that Governments have to do sometimes. It is certainly not an attempt, as Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat attempted to claim on Twitter: ‘to shut down the internet.’
  2. A laidback approach to logic. Much of the criticism surrounding the decision is of the: ‘I’ve never been sexually assaulted so what’s the problem’ kind. A similar argument to: ‘it always rains in Slough, so climate change must be a hoax.’
  3. It has to be said: Uber is cheap and Black Cabs are not. In some sense this is a fair argument. In another it is not. This debate has opened a window to a rather ugly side of British post-Thatcherite capitalism, in which the cheap cost of an Uber drive is weighed against the prevalence of sexual assault, and seen to be more important. Quite frankly, it’s damning.
  4. Uber drivers aren’t what people think. Although this assertion is based only on anecdote, I found the following was true of virtually all Uber drivers I’ve ever met, which is a fair few: It was never their only job. Other occupations ranged from selling used cars, to being a stay at home Dad. Making a living out of driving for Uber is virtually impossible. Very few lived in London. They would drive all through the night delivering middle-class drunkards like me home, then return to Kent or Essex at a ridiculous hour. There was no such thing as a sleep-pattern and many would work back-to-back shifts.

The whole ‘scandal’ is remarkably simple, and it has a simple solution. Uber has to change. No petition will change that alone.

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