Transport for London has refused to renew Uber’s licence as a private hire operator after expiry of its current licence on 30 September, on the grounds that Uber lacks corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues that have potential public safety and security implications (more detail available). Uber is appealing against this decision. Thus far more than 700,000 people have signed an online petition in support of Uber.
The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has endorsed TfL’s decision, but has recognised the popularity of Uber and has said that there is a place in London for all private hire companies that play by the rules and that he wants to help support innovative businesses in London and to create a vibrant and safe taxi and private hire market. The Mayor is consulting on his draft Transport Strategy, which has the ambition to reduce car use to 20% of all trips by 2040. One reason why car ownership and use in London is on a downward trend is that there are alternatives to the private car, Uber and the like as well as buses and trains.
3.5m Londoners use Uber via its smartphone app and more than 40,000 licensed drivers work for the company. While there have been criticisms of a number aspects of aspects of Uber’s operations, it is evident that this innovative service meets a real mobility need. Its virtues include the clear location and timing of the arriving vehicle with a named driver, the ability to rate the driver after the trip, no need to pay by cash or card, and applicability of the same app throughout London and to all cities that Uber serves. These attractions, together with relatively low fares, account for the success of Uber in competition with black cabs and local minicabs.
TfL’s refusal to renew Uber’s licence on grounds of safety and security seems at odds with the popularity of the service amongst Londoners. Uber must have a fair chance of modifying the decision on appeal to the court or in negotiation. But if not, others will seize the opportunity to step in. The drivers and their cars are there, as are the smartphones waiting to be loaded with new apps. There are other platforms in London such as Gett and mytaxi, (both for black cabs at present), and it is reported that Uber’s main competitor in the US, Lyft, is thinking about coming to London.
An important question is whether a single platform would tend to be dominant on account of economies of scale and scope – spreading the overhead costs across the greatest number of users and providing the fastest response times. Or whether stable competition between a number of providers could be achieved, as they compete for both clients and drivers by offering attractive terms to both. Lyft has been growing market share in New York at Uber’s expense. The New Economics Foundation has proposed ‘Khan’s Cars’, a mutually-owned, publicly-regulated alternative to Uber.
Another question is the sustainable level of fares for services provided by these platforms, which would need to be sufficiently high to attract drivers but low enough to be competitive with conventional taxis and minicabs. The app-based platforms such as UberPool allow customers to share journeys with other going in the same direction at lower fares – a source of competitive advantage as well as a means of increasing vehicle occupancy, which is helpful for efficient use of the road network.
For the longer term, the possibility of driverless vehicles offers scope for substantial cost reduction for robotic taxis. This could allow population of the vacant space between high capacity, low fare public transport offering stop-to-stop or station-to-station service, and low capacity, high fare taxis offering door-to-door journeys.