London mayor Boris Johnson has accused advocates of Uber’s presence in London of demonstrating ‘symmetrical dismissiveness’ about the fate of the world famous Hackney carriages in the capital, more familiarly known as the London black cabs. In a column for The Telegraph, Johnson describes the extensive and fervent correspondence he has to deal with from fans of Uber, and their ‘heartlessness’ about the demise of the black cab in the wake of the ride-sharing app’s huge success in London. He also indicates that UK government ministers not only rely quite heavily on black cabs, but may not ‘have apps’ such as Uber in order to take advantage of the service.
Referring to the lobbying and legal engagement of the London Private Hire Car Association (LPHCA) to Transport for London, Johnson writes:
‘The reason TfL is consulting on new regulations for minicabs is very simple: we need to uphold the law. At present that law is being systematically broken – or at least circumvented – by the use of the Uber app. Ever since minicabs were first regulated in the 1960s, this country has drawn a clear distinction between private hire vehicles and hackney carriages. The hackney carriage trade has been regulated since Oliver Cromwell, and today these black cabs must conform to onerous specifications, including a tight turning circle and wheelchair access. Their drivers must have passed “the Knowledge” – an exacting test about London’s geography.’
Johnson goes on to note that under current legislation only officially licensed Hackney carriages are permitted to ‘ply for trade’ on London’s streets – to move about itinerantly and respond to ad hoc requests for custom from the public. Minicabs and other ancillary car hire services are not allowed to do this, and Johnson argues that letting Londoner’s ‘hail’ Uber with the app is tantamount to granting them the same hard-won freedom to pick up random passengers which has always been the exclusive reserve of the black cab driver. He contends that the Uber app is ‘allowing private hire vehicles to behave like black taxis: to be hailed, to ply for hire in the streets, to do exactly what the law says they are not supposed to do. You have the instant (or virtually instant) accessibility of the black cab, with none of the extra costs entailed by the vehicle regulations or the Knowledge, and the growth of the business is huge.’
Elsewhere in the piece Johnson balances his defence of black cabs with a typically Conservative zeal for free markets and free enterprise. But despite addressing all the issues, he suggests no easy resolution – unless all hire-cars in London are given the same rights which Uber has granted itself, without permission, via new technology.
Later on in the column, Johnson gives an interesting insight into the average technological level of UK government ministers:
‘I hear no one in government advocating [a level playing field], not least since many people don’t have apps, and greatly value the black cabs.’
Of course, Johnson is right about one thing – Uber drivers do gather around surge zones at surge times; given Uber’s fundamental model of business, it could not be otherwise. As regular readers of the in-house Uber driver forum Uberpeople will know, the company is even prone to ‘invent’ new surge zones and areas for its own reasons.
In any case, since the principle complaint of all Uber drivers is the amount of time that it takes them to arrive at the location of a new fare, the Uberpeople forums bear out that drivers are singularly obsessed with positioning themselves as close as possible to their potential customers. And the method of hailing is indeed mere semantics.
By this rationale, either Uber cannot continue to operate its standard model in London, or minicab drivers must be accorded equal opportunity with their more venerated colleagues in the black cabs. And then those technologically disenfranchised members of parliament are simply going to have to find out what an app is, if they want to continue to be driven the 3-4 minutes from the House of Commons to their SW1 residences.