The decision by London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan – or Transport for London which he oversees – to withhold Uber’s licence has outraged those Londoners who rely on the insurgent service to get around an increasingly expensive and annoying city. A petition demanding the restoration of Uber’s licence had by Saturday morning already garnered almost 500,000 signatures. Meanwhile, “black cab” drivers are celebrating their victory. Uber is accused of refusing to comply with the rules, not investigating criminal complaints and using technology designed to fox inspectors. The company has ten days in which to appeal.
The row has demonstrated once again that Uber has become a battleground in the metropolitan culture war. It is totemic, a defining symbol of innovation and insurgency.
That means libertarians, globalists and free marketeers like disruptive Uber. There’s an added frisson. I see that London Remainers like it too because Uber’s drivers tend to be polite immigrants and all traditional “black cab” drivers voted to leave the EU. All of them. Every single one. And their pronouncements on Brexit and the welfare system and cyclists on radio phone-in shows don’t help. Sometimes these arguments are tried out first on furious passengers with their eyes fixed on the meter running up an outrageous bill.
In London, in the media, or in the City, or in politics, or on Twitter, it is de rigueur to have strong opinions about this great subject of our time. Here, I’m afraid I’m going to let myself down and admit that I can see both sides of the argument. To that end I merely make the following observations:
1) The competition from Uber has forced the “black cabs” to reform. Polite and helpful drivers used to be the worthy exception, but the drivers in the black cabs seem generally much more polite now. The old harrumphing when you were only going a short way or needed a cashpoint half way through a long journey seems to be gone. There are contactless card machines in the cab. The drivers have lost their monopoly and must treat the customer well to keep them coming back. Competition works!
2) But… while Uber turns up quickly and is cheap, only a devotee would claim that the journey experience is universally positive. I’ve had several very rackety experiences on the uber account of others, involving erratic driving from drivers unfamiliar with the rules of the road and the language of the land.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
3) Uber in terms of corporate personality is, let’s face it, pretty ghastly. The company prattling on now about the risk to 40,000 jobs, when the entire model is built on them not having any employees, takes the biscuit. Uber is a blend of budget airline RyanAirism and the worst Silicon Valley hippy hucksterism.
4) But then the London black cab lobby is pretty sanctimonious too in its own way.
5) The London economy is not going to fall over if the licence ban persists. It just isn’t. It has huge capacity to absorb 40,000 flexible workers keen to make money.
6) Smooth operator Sadiq Khan has slipped up for the first time. He would be quite vulnerable in London if the Tories weren’t in such a mess. Not only has he caved in to the black cab lobby, he’s nowhere on crime, or on easing congestion or on improving London’s architecture and economy.
7) It’s the pedestrians I feel sorry for, speaking as a pedestrian. London’s busiest streets are an increasingly chaotic battleground. The traffic measures have created gridlock, with cycle superhighways empty for most of the day and buses and cars backed up in places they never were previously outside rush-hour. Drivers are annoyed, which means they sometimes get frustrated and behave badly towards cyclists. The cyclists, or too many of them, then pass on their frustration and aggression to pedestrians. Yes, some pedestrians step out (looking at their phones) but on any given day a pedestrian will multiple times see arrogant cyclists going through red lights or crossing pedestrian areas as though somehow the law does not apply because they are on two wheels.
Sadiq Khan has shown himself to be woefully ineffective in handling it all, but some questions should surely be asked of the person who was Mayor from 2008 to 2016. Now, who was that?
So, ultimately, it’s the fault of Boris. Can we all at least agree on that?