TfL’s Uber Decision Makes Zero Sense. So What Happens Next?
As Uber comes to terms with Transport for London’s decision to block it from operating in the capital, there are a lot of questions to be answered.
Uber labelled the decision “extraordinary and wrong” and said it will appeal. Soon, both parties will face each other in court for the second time in just over two years. The fiendishly difficult issue at the centre of this: can Uber do enough to fix its systems and operate in London in the long term?
This is a legal battle that is unlikely to go smoothly. A regulatory expert, who asked not to be named, says Uber could argue in court that Transport for London (TfL) is “moving the goalpost” unfairly. “Uber could make a convincing argument that it was given unattainable goals, rather than specific standards that they can agree they have met,” they explain.
The wording of TfL’s new requirements are vague at best. A broad statement asking Uber to ensure that all drivers are correctly vetted on the app comes with no parameters of what would be considered acceptable or not by the regulator.
TfL says that Uber introduced a number of fixes and safeguards to prevent future occurrences with the most recent introduced in October 2019, and that it was a “lack of confidence” that led to the decision this week.
Now, Uber could counter that it’s throwing all of the technology possible at the problem to solve it – even confirming plans to force drivers to use face-scanning technology, which could land it in hot water with the Information Commissioner.
There is little point fighting Uber in court with ambiguous requirements that could allow the company to wiggle out unscathed. Equally there is no point battling Uber, if in future, this same scenario could happen again without TfL’s knowledge. And that’s why TfL needs to require services like Uber to provide it with a lot more data.
Despite security issues taking centre stage in Uber’s last battle with London’s transport regulator in 2017, these major safety breaches, which involved 14,000 passenger trips, were only detected when the company applied for its latest licence. Until TfL audited Uber to determine the scale of the problem, it had no clue the scale at which people had impersonated drivers and breached the app to create new profiles when they were blocked.
And even with the knowledge of these wide-scale abuses of the Uber app, TfL has avoided demanding regular data sharing. Instead TfL has asked Uber to share weekly reports about any internal investigations about safety issues detected on its app. This ignores the very information that, for example, allowed New York City to keep a closer eye on the company and ensure that it was adhering to higher security, environmental and employment standards: trip data.
“TfL simply does not have enough regular insight into the operations of Uber,” says Meera Joshi, who ran the equivalent of TfL in New York as city comptroller. “How do you know all of the other apps aren’t doing it too?”
Some of Uber’s competitors, including Bolt (formerly Taxify) quickly responded to the news by claiming they have collaborated with TfL to ensure they comply.
Uber’s competition could, in fact, make a huge difference because they can pick up the slack and maintain a similar service. But this is little consolation for the over 45,000 drivers that rely on Uber in the city.
TfL’s inability to run a stable regulatory regime and Uber’s refusal to play by the rules will be paid for by the most vulnerable workforce in London, argues James Farrar, chair of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain union.
“Many will now face the distress of facing not only unemployment but also crippling debt as they struggle to meet car lease payments,” he says.
Some believe that Uber may have backed itself into a corner with a model that relies on pumping more and more cars into the overcrowded London market, and sustains itself with 20-second windows to respond to passenger ride requests.
Any argument from Uber that there are too many companies doing business in London is “the pot calling the kettle black”, says Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association.” Who is running the business, TfL or Uber? What is the next thing that they (Uber) aren’t going to sort out? The stable door is open, the horse has bolted.”