Iain Murray: London’s Uber Ban Sends it Back to the Dark Ages

When I lived in London in the 1990s, I had to use pricey Black Cabs to get around the city at night. However, heaven help you if you wanted to go South of the Thames (as I did when I lived there) after midnight – Black Cabs would just refuse to take you. On one occasion I watched in horror as the cab driver got out and literally started a fight with a driver who had cut him off – and he kept the meter running throughout the fracas.

London’s days of high prices, uncertainty, and danger ended when Uber started operating there in 2012. It went on to dominate the London private hire car market. Today, that was all thrown out as Transport for London (TfL), an Uber competitor in that it runs the Tube and franchises bus services, revoked Uber’s license to operate.

Safety First?

The decision was ostensibly based on health and safety grounds. TfL said:

“TfL considers that Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications. These include:

  • Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.
  • Its approach to how medical certificates are obtained.
  • Its approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained.
  • Its approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London – software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.”

These grounds are puzzling. Uber has a dedicated team responsible for working with the police regarding incidents with cars that use the Uber app – something London’s Black Cabs lack. Uber’s drivers go through exactly the same background checks and approval processes that Black Cab drivers do. And Uber denies that the Greyball feature has ever been used in London.

Moreover, accusations of violence, especially sexual violence, by Uber app drivers are overblown. As Reuters reports, “Of the 154 allegations of rape or sexual assault made to police in London between February 2015 and February 2016 in which the suspect was a taxi driver, 32 concerned Uber, according to the capital’s police force.” If Uber was uniquely bad in having drivers who attempted sexual assaults, that share should be much higher.

Women, in particular, have started to object to the decision.

TfL should remember that the unlicensed minicab industry, which existed because of the limitations of Black Cab service and which Uber crowded out, was a source of far more assaults. According to a Metropolitan Police report that analyzed data from 2010, before Uber started up, there were at least 250 and possibly as many as 1,125 cases of sexual assault by unlicensed minicab drivers a year.

Uber solved that problem through its combination of background checks, driver monitoring, low fares, and trust feedback – passengers can see how other passengers rated the driver. TfL may have just reinstated it.

That is why women, in particular, have started to object to the decision. One of Uber’s main attractions is that it prevents women from having to stand on street corners at night, perhaps after drinking, and finding themselves unable to hail a cab that will take them where they want to go. Rachel Cunliffe of CityAM notes at The Spectator:

[N]ighttime transport in London still leaves a lot to be desired, and the knowledge that you can book a door-to-door service without breaking the bank is intensely reassuring. Factor in the ability to track your route and send details of your trip to friends so they know exactly where you are, plus the stark reviewing system that discourages unacceptable conduct, and Uber feels significantly safer than most of the alternatives.

If Uber is unable to make points like these stick on appeal, then up to 40,000 drivers face having to find alternative sources of income. The effect of Uber as a free-market welfare safety net will end.

There’s No Going Back

While it may at first seem odd that the socialist Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, agrees with the decision that could put so many people out of work, the decision becomes less puzzling when the opposition of various labor unions to Uber is taken into account. The opposition of labor unions to the sharing economy is a key point made by sharing economy expert Jared Meyer in his book, “How Progressive Cities Fight Innovation.”

The ridesharing genie may be out of the bottle.

However, the ridesharing genie may be out of the bottle. When Austin, TX, imposed controls on ridesharing apps that Uber and Lyft felt were too stringent for them, a number of innovative alternatives sprang up. A nonprofit ridesharing coop like RideAustin would be an interesting problem for TfL, Khan, and the labor unions to face.

One final factor needs to be considered. Many international travelers to London use Uber around the world. If they are faced with twice the prices, cabs whose credit card machines are mysteriously “not working” after they get in, and a restricted range of options for travel around the city, the attraction of London as an international business destination will diminish.

In London’s foolish Uber decision we may have a glimpse of what might happen if Brexit goes wrong.

Iain Murray


Iain Murray

Iain Murray is the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s vice president of strategy. For the past decade with the Institute, he has concentrated on financial regulation, employment and immigration regulation and free market environmentalism.

Murray has published several acclaimed books, including Stealing You Blind: How Government Fatcats Are Getting Rich Off of You and The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Won’t Tell You About – Because They Helped Cause Them. His op-eds have appeared in The National Review, The Providence Journal and Fox News. He has appeared on Fox News, CNN Headline News, the BBC and Al-Jazeera, among other broadcast networks.

In addition to his work at CEI, Murray is the visiting fellow at the Adam Smith Institute and board members of the Cherish Freedom Trust and American Friends of the Taxpayers Alliance and advisory board members of Global Britain and Young Britons Foundation.

Prior to coming to CEI in 2003, Murray was the Director of Research for the Statistical Assessment Service and an Executive Officer in HM Department of Transport. He received his MBA from the University of London and his MA from the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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14 Responses to Iain Murray: London’s Uber Ban Sends it Back to the Dark Ages

  1. Jannie

    London is not a pleasant place to visit these days. It’s not just the high prices, you would expect that. I spent a week in London earlier this year and did not hear a single cockney accent, not even the minibus driver from the airport. It still has the British Museum and the National Gallery, but that’s not enough to offset the sense of alienation.

  2. Rococo Liberal

    DO these wallies at TfL really think they can hold back the future?

  3. v_maet

    @Jannie

    Same goes for Paris and practically any capital city in Eurabia.

    Really you are best to go to Hungary and Poland if you want to visit Europe and see European things rather than going to a colder and wetter Africa/Middle East.

  4. Bones

    After having suffered the rudeness and arrogance of the black cab drivers especially denial of use of a credit card, I have no sympathy for their business being disrupted. Also they took my wife on an around the world trip once, GBP 120 from Heathrow to Piccadilly. They deserve every bit of it.

    The smelly careless drivers and filthy cars which we put up with in Sydney for many years similarly.

  5. struth

    Brexit will only happen when the entire EU collapses.

    Nigel Farage stepped away too soon.

  6. Solitarius

    Actually, as a dual citizen Aussie/Pom who lives in London and uses a black cab every week day, i’d have to say Murray’s comments are 90% horseshit.

    There are a myriad of transport choices in London. Everything from Limo’s to self-drive. Yes, you can drive into the city and park at night cheaply and without much trouble.

    Try getting a quote from Addison Lee or Uber on a London cross town ride and you’ll find the black cabs are often cheaper. Try sitting in an Uber vehicle as the driver holds you up for half an hour because his phone app on his windscreen gives him a bum steer.

    Furthermore, when you get into a Black Cab in London you’re dealing with a person who knows where they are going, knows how to navigate streets, etc. You’re not getting into a privately insured, private vehicle, of unknown maintenance status, with an amateur driver relying upon Wayz, who’s just arrived in the country a few minutes ago and has a largely unknown background.

    If Murray had actually spent any time in London recently he’d know, as i do, that Uber has turned the streets of inner city London into a circus. Uber drivers block roads, drive up one way streets the wrong way, very often swerve across lanes and cut drivers off. They are amateurs and pests in a city that enjoys a level of professional driving decorum.

    It was only a matter of time before London got sick of Uber’s shenanigans.

    Check your facts Mr. Murray!

  7. GerardO

    I think this is more about “cultural capital” rather than anything else. Black cabs are one of London’s icons, and the city would seem to lose some of its distinctness if they were to disappear.

  8. Nerblnob

    Some weird points above:
    GerardO:
    Black cabs were in no danger of disappearing because of Uber. MiniCabs were. I doubt any member of the public feels remotely disappointed about that.

    Solitarius:
    Good for you if you love Black Cabs uber alles but The Knowledge is redundant, and the drivers are mostly untraceable, unlike Uber’s . Someone reacted to this point by saying a slighted or assaulted cab passenger could take a picture of the licence plate. What a joke, compared to Uber’s comprehensive data available whether you remember to check it at the time or not. I visit London frequently and many other cities in Europe, including most German cities before their councils colluded with taxi companies to block ride-sharing incomers.

    No Uber I’ve taken in London has ever got lost, but several Black Cabs have. Last year, going from ExCel to LCY in a hurry I had one Cabbie get out of the car at Connaught Bridge and try to start a fight with someone who he considered had cut him off.

  9. Bill

    Perhaps trade unions had something to do with it, but Uber are a criminal organisation – there’s no official in Asia they haven’t tried to bribe. They blow through about $2bn a year as well, so wont be around too much longer.

  10. Since Uber came along there’s no end of bitching about how taxis “stink” & are “dirty” etc. blah blah blah.
    This is likely all just made up.
    I cannot recall riding in a cab driven by someone with poor personal hygiene, have never found taxis to be dirty, or falling apart.

    There are obvious signs that not a lot of money is spent – how can it be otherwise when hundreds of thousands of dollars has to be paid to a rent-seeking government via the licence fee?

    However I’ve never found cabbies to be anything but helpful, decent, working people.
    (This of course does not apply to the sub-continentals who are creeping into the industry, and who in the big smoke seem to be now a majority of cab drivers. They are culturally clueless donkeys and are having one is like being in a driverless car with a breathing mannequin at the wheel – however this ain’t a cab-specific problem).

    Black cabs in London are a weird thing to ride in, and sitting in the back seat pretty much unable to communicate with the driver is a weird and unnatural experience. However the drivers are generally extremely helpful, and great to talk to. They’ll explain the scenery and suchforth. (A black cab driver without being prompted pointed out ‘rotten row’ to me, something I’ll never forget – that level of helpfulness is hard to beat)

    It is an insult to cabbies to suggest a part time dickhead is ever going to surpass the cab experience.
    Try asking an Uber driver what the mood of the public is. Never going to happen.
    Cabbies are generally more reliable than newspoll.

    However, if I have to ride with one more clueless subcontinental moron, I’ll bit the bullet and get a smartphone (apparently you need one to use Uber).

    My accountant swears by Uber, but he’s after a quick pickup at the airport.
    Anybody who has experienced the fiasco which is Sydney airport’s taxi rank, will probably do as I do, and never visit Sydney again – that city has done without me for several years, mainly coz I’m not prepared to stand like cattle waiting for a taxi.

  11. Empire GTHO Phase III

    Perhaps trade unions had something to do with it, but Uber are a criminal organisation – there’s no official in Asia they haven’t tried to bribe. They blow through about $2bn a year as well, so wont be around too much longer.

    How are those taxi plates going champ?

  12. notafan

    There are obvious signs that not a lot of money is spent – how can it be otherwise when hundreds of thousands of dollars has to be paid to a rent-seeking government via the licence fee?

    I think you will find that in most cases this is what they were trading for on the secondary market.

  13. yarpos

    Sounds like a lot of cobblers really. Its not as black and white as black cabs or Uber. With Ubers competitors, minicabs, hire cars, buses and the underground I really doubt the presence (or not) of Uber is going to change life that much in London.

  14. True Aussie

    Nothing is stopping uber getting taxi permits like all other taxis.

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