Andre Walker highlights how Transport for London’s assault on Uber is merely one part of a global struggle against a bold challenger seeking to deliver innovation to a sector, dominated by cartels, that has seen none for nearly half a century. We must not allow them to win. Click here to sign the petition and fight this injustice.
London black cab drivers are often described as ‘the best in the world’ that is because they spend an average of 34 months learning the trade (aka doing The Knowledge) before they ever get into a taxi. Believe it or not, they know 25 thousand routes and 20 thousand places of interest, an extraordinary feat, and one rendered almost totally pointless by satellite navigation.
Almost totally pointless, but not entirely.
The Knowledge is one of the ways the black cab industry in London has been able to restrict entry to the taxi market since 1864. The aim is to ensure fewer cabs so each driver can pick and choose what work he wants, whilst demanding top dollar for the job.
Since the Victorian era, the number of black cabs has grown, but not nearly as much as people using loopholes to provide ‘private hire’ car services to fill the gap between the demand of customers and the very limited supply of black cabs.
And so, the battle moved on to inhibiting ‘private hire’ vehicles as much as possible. One of the ways the black cabs did this was by preventing customers from hailing them on the street. This ensured there were nowhere near enough vehicles to take people home from London’s West End on a Saturday night, in doing so it once again maintained high prices for black cabs.
Everyone was happy, well actually almost no-one was happy aside from black cab drivers. The cost to London of having their cartel was transport chaos, stranded drunk people and exorbitant prices for anyone lucky enough to find a black cab.
The first solution was rickshaws, those bizarre little pedal taxis popular in the third world. They were able to get around the restrictions black cabs insisted on. That said most sane people recognized how dangerous they were and avoided them.
Second, there was Uber. The service that enabled ordinary people to get access to a prompt taxi service at a reasonable price. You could ‘hail’ the car virtually via an app on your phone, and they billed you directly, so no need for cash.
Suddenly the cartel was smashed to bits. No-longer could black cabs afford to refuse customers who live in areas they didn’t like driving to. Also, the chaos in the West End evaporated, as the number of vehicles available to passengers soared.
They soared so much that as of today 40 thousand people drive through the Uber app in London. But perhaps not for much longer: Transport for London (backed by Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan) has announced they will not renew Uber’s license to operate in the capital.
Black Cabs are whooping for joy. Suddenly 3.5 million passenger who use Uber will be back searching the streets once more. They do not propose to increase their fleet or bring in new drivers. No, it’s simply back to the ‘good’ old days.
Uber is not blameless in all this. Its vetting is sub-standard and it has refused to engage with the regulator. There are also increases in sexual assaults by drivers, though how many were prevented by young people being able to get into a car at all is a statistic we may never know.
But this debate is about open markets, and how the black cabs have made exploiting its monopoly, rather than innovation, its secret to success. I don’t care what happens to Uber but I do care about being able to get home. I don’t take the view that sitting around at 2am every weekend for hours is a price worth paying to keep the black cabs on £50 thousand a year.
Uber is under attack across the world; and it’s always the same story. There are always those who can (and will) profit from restricted markets, but we must not allow them to win. Click here to sign the petition and fight this injustice.