JP Floru is an author, City of Westminster councillor, and stood as Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Bermondsey in 2015.
Transport for London is drafting proposals to thwart Uber in London. Uber customers will have to wait of five minutes before a car can turn up; Uber sharing will be blocked; and the app will not be allowed to show how many cars there are in the area. TfL is bowing to the pressure of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA), the cabbies’ union. The incumbent cabbies don’t like free market competition. Imagine: the audacity of requiring them to brush up their act and move with the times! Now TfL seems to join in the habitual unions’ mantra of “We keep our privileges and the public be damned”. And yet the cabbies have a good case and there is a reasonable solution – they would be far more successful if only they made it.
Once you go Uber, you will be in the future. I haven’t met a single person who continued to use black cabs once they had tried Uber. Uber is recommended to me by friends on an almost daily basis. Ubers are everywhere. Market data do not lie: we want Uber. The service was only launched in 2012 in London. There has been a 20 per cent fall in black cab licence applications in the year leading up to April 2015. Since Uber took off there are 10,000 additional private hire drivers in London. In December 2014 the company was valued at £25 billion worldwide.
This morning, the website where people can sign up to support Uber in the TfL dispute repeatedly crashed due to demand (it’s back up now – you can sign up here). Last year, when black cab drivers unions brought London to a standstill with their action against Uber at a cost of £125 million to London’s economy, the sign-up rate for Uber rose by 850 per cent. As Uber boss Jo Bertram said: “Londoners are voting with their fingers, tapping the app in support of new and innovative services”. Cabbies continue with go-slow actions to protest, making Uber ever more popular (one does wonder what a black cab go-slow means as they move like snails at the best of times). They can’t help themselves: counter-productive actions are a constituting trait of unions.
And yet black cabbies could make an argument which the public would understand, accept, and support. Black cabs are overregulated. Uber is not subject to the same rules and that is, indeed, unfair. Instead of calling for the sclerocis to be spread among the non-infected, black cabbies could plead for deregulation. For example, black cabbies undergo between four and seven years of training. They need to pass the famously difficult Knowledge Test: learning 320 standard routes and points of interest – in total 25,000 streets are covered. Why? GPS, anyone?
So why do black cabbies not plead for their own deregulation? Could it be because the regulations keep newcomers out? Some say that the whole black cab licensing system is in fact a protectionist racket, whereby completion is scared off so excessive fares can be charged. Everybody who has ever compared an Uber rate with a black cab rate knows what I mean. Some black cabbies earn as much as £50,000 a year. Uber drivers are self-employed and un-unionised.
There is a bizarre reticence among politicians to wholeheartedly support Uber. A few weeks ago a question about Uber was asked at the hustings for the selection of the GLA candidate for the West Central Area. Not one of the four candidates stood up for Uber; instead they focused on how wonderful black cabs are. This is very strange, as they were standing for the Conservative Party. I joined the Conservative Party because it stands for freedom, free markets, and free choice. I think it would be quite a good little idea to leave monopolistic supplier protection to the other side.
Politicians cling to yesteryear’s belief that black cab drivers are popular and that annoying them would somehow harm their career prospects. London mayoral candidates famously used to be super-nice to black cabbies because they liked to be talked up by them to customers. This belief that cabbies have any influence on voters is misplaced: how many people do actually appreciate cabbies’ views on all and sundry? In fact, I would pay extra if only they shut up (the same goes for hairdressers). But, apart from that, the fact remains that Londoners vote by tapping the app. Politicians ignoring the will of the people do not last.
Or is it a generational thing? How many bureaucrats in TfL who now come up with these regulations against the public have in fact never used an Uber? They should try it. Just once.