The cacophonous din of some 8000 black taxis blasting their horns in sporadic unison tore through the afternoon of Wednesday the 10th of February. The usually bustling thoroughfare of Whitehall had been brought for a second time to a complete and surreal halt.
For as far as could be seen in either direction, from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament, stretched row upon row of London’s iconic cabs. Centred outside of the guarded gates of Downing Street, the United Cabbies Group (UCG) and Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) protest had begun and the discontent was palpable.
Since its 2012 London launch ‘ride’-hailing app Uber has angered the capital’s black cab industry by challenging, what has become to many, an outdated regulatory system. The company occupies a new space between technology business and private hire transport service and so sidesteps a number of the regulations and standards that apply to taxis. Smartphones, mobile applications and GPS tracking have blurred the practical distinction between existing regulation categories, and this has been to the advantage of the Silicon Valley based firm, and to the utter dismay of cab drivers.
One of the first to arrive at what later became the epicentre of central London’s traffic standstill is black cab driver Trevor Merrals. Merrals is the campaign manager for the UCG and is responsible for having organised the mass protest. He is passionate in his belief that current regulation is failing London’s 25000 black cab drivers and unfairly favouring “tech disrupters” Uber.
Uber provides a unique operating model which connects customers to drivers using mobile technology in a smartphone application. By offering fiercely competitive prices and operating at the edges of existing laws Uber has challenged traditional transport models the world over. Its growing international presence has sparked regular and sometimes violent protests, court cases and outright bans in cities across the globe. Despite a sometimes troubled public image the company now operates in 377 cities and is worth an estimated $51billion. The service enjoys in excess of one and a half million weekly users in London alone.
The modern black cabs which filled Whitehall have been operating in the capital with which they are synonymous for the last century. Transport for London (TfL) regulate the trade in a two-tier system which was bought into effect in 1998. Regulations differentiate between Taxicabs who can ‘ply for hire’ on the street and Private Hire Vehicles (PHVs) which are able to provide cheaper fares but must be booked in advance. Although they may be hailed instantaneously from the street Uber is regulated as a pre-booked PHV. This is a technicality which angers cab drivers who say that when Uber began operating across London they created a third but unrecognised tier of service.
In the capital taximeters are awarded only to registered taxi drivers that have completed a notoriously difficult exam known as ‘the knowledge’. The exam can take three years or more to pass and requires the memorisation of 25,000 streets and hundreds of points of interest. In contrast Uber’s PHV drivers are required to undertake a short induction course and complete a DBS background check. This in combination with Uber’s primarily part time workforce has led to criticism that the company is instigating a de-professionalisation of the sector.
In October 2015 the High Court found in favour of Uber in a dispute about the apps likeness to a taximeter. Despite the app being declared an essential part of calculating fares – based on distance travelled – it was ruled that it did not technically constitute a dedicated meter. This effectively meant that Uber could continue to be regulated as a PHV. On the 20th of January cab drivers were again frustrated as TfL announced that it would abandon plans to enforce tighter regulations on the American company. These were to include, among other proposals, mandatory five minute waiting times to bring the service more in line with other PHV operators. Merrals believes that this was in part due to pressure from central government.
Uber’s new London Headquarters is situated on the first floor of a modern glass office tower block in Aldgate. Tom Eldridge is the general manager for the company’s London division. He believes that much of the cabbies backlash against Uber has been due to its new operating model challenging a system that has not until his company’s introduction experienced any meaningful change.
This nuanced battle of technicalities has been waging for four years and shows little sign of letting up despite recent developments which have been to the advantage of Uber. Through being able to offer cheaper fares but similar levels of convenience as it’s heavily regulated counterpart; the ride-hailing app is sure to grow it’s customer base in London. As the cab industry continues to be disrupted it is hard to imagine that animosity between London’s cabbies and Uber will subside. Numbers of black cabs have already begun to decline but it is unlikely that they will disappear altogether being as they are an iconic symbol of London. More certain is that technology will continue to disrupt established services and business models wherever the two collide.
Edited by Sara Macham