In its rapid rise to dominance in our private, bookable transport industry, Uber has made itself some powerful enemies
I love Uber taxis. I’ve been using Uber for over a year now, and it’s a thoroughly pleasant experience: The cars are clean and the drivers are polite and only too happy to engage in conversation. Payment is handled through the app and estimated in advance, so late-night detours to an ATM are no longer needed, and you can split fares with friends through the app. Heck, you can even play your own Spotify playlists through the car’s sound system.
Most crucially, using Uber is cheaper than other minicab firms, and a lot cheaper than black cabs. Using Uber has, in its own little way, improved my quality of life.
Part of Uber’s charm is that it is exceedingly simple. You open the app, tap the screen, and a car arrives to meet you, usually within a few minutes. Their drivers are contractors, who use their own car, and tend to be attracted to the flexibility this provides. Uber takes a 20 per cent commission from every fare. I am yet to meet an Uber driver who moans about the company.
As well as customers and drivers, a third group of people enthusing about Uber are investors. After a $1 billion fundraising exercise this year, the company is now valued at $50 billion—reaching this ridiculous level two years earlier than Facebook.
Uber is by no means perfect: There has been controversy concerning what some see as flouting regulations and cutting corners on background checks, and the company courted controversy during the 2014 Sydney café siege, when prices were quadrupled in the area. Perhaps most annoyingly, Uber paid only £22,000 in tax in the UK last year (though this is also a problem to do with the maladroitness of governments when trying to levy multinationals).
In short, barring a few hiccups, Uber has proved a revelation—not just changing the game of private transport, but creating a new game altogether.
However, not everyone shares the glowing positivity towards Uber that I do. The most vociferous critics of Uber and its business model are, unsurprisingly, long-established, old-fashioned taxi companies. In the UK, this has mainly taken the form of those who drive black cabs in London.
I say black cabs, but they are actually Hackney carriages, a term that, in the past, has applied to numerous variations of horse-drawn carriages. I’m sure the drivers of those were more dismayed at the arrival of motorised taxis than their modern-day successors have been by the arrival of Uber.
The primary source of the London cabbies’ opprobrium is that Uber have proved themselves to be better, cheaper and quicker than they have. Or, to couch it in their terms, Uber drivers’ use of a sat-nav, rather than learning an unfathomable number of possible routes across the capital, makes the playing field uneven for black cab drivers.
The Knowledge, as it is known, casts the cabbies in an unflattering light, where they are at once arrogant and oblivious to 21st century technological advances. In our world of sat-navs and the internet, there is absolutely no reason to learn their way around the streets of any city by heart.
Unfortunately for Uber, where tradition provides legitimacy, anything novel tends to be treated with suspicion, or outright hostility.
Transport for London (TfL) decided to respond to Uber’s market dominance and innovation by proposing to change the regulations to which car hire companies must comply. Jarringly, these proposals include a mandatory minimum five-minute wait between the customer requesting a car on a car hire app like Uber, and being allowed to get into the car. It is estimated this move could leave each London-based Uber driver up to £1,000 per year worse off.
Logically, this is dumbfounding. Surely the solution to arrest the rise of Uber would be for the black cab drivers to up their game? Maybe they could consider being more pleasant, or charging less extortionate fares.
Apply the same idea to any other business start-up, and TfL’s proposals look even more ridiculous. Say you were Paz, the Kebab King of Fallowfield. You are the undisputed top dog in the late-night takeaway game, and you’ve got the student demographic nailed down. Suddenly, a spate of new takeaways are opened, that offer nicer food and better service at a fraction of the price. You, Paz, would be forced to change your business model to make your offering more attractive to potential customers, rather than complain to municipal authorities to stifle the new guys.
Obviously, authorities need to ensure that Uber—and all other private car hire firms, for that matter—comply with regulations and provide background checks on all their drivers. However, authorities should not conjure up new, stifling regulations out of thin air to placate those who get misty-eyed about their position of archaic privilege. Just look at how well protectionism worked before the world wars.
To get serious for a moment (sorry!), one of the biggest sticks that critics have used to hit Uber with has been fears about passengers being raped by their drivers. Indeed, in October, a former Uber driver in India was convicted of raping one of his female passengers, leading to the app being banned in the country. Despite this horrific crime, Uber cars should be safer for punters since, before you get into the car, you are sent a photograph of your driver, as well as their rating by other customers and their licence plate. Surely that is a smart precaution to have in place?
In this age of increasing interconnectivity across the world, it would be folly and extremely short-sighted to deny Uber the room to revolutionise the way we transport ourselves across increasingly hectic urban landscapes because new-age Luddites insist that we stifle progress to preserve a status quo that works in their favour.
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