Protectionism trumps progress: TfL’s war on Uber and enterprise

Philip Salter
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Uber Drivers Present Petition To Transport For London
No ifs, no buts – if Uber is banned, it will destroy the livelihoods of thousands of Londoners (Source: Getty)

Londoners love Uber.

Over 3.5m of us use the service, racking up over one million rides a week. It’s cheap, convenient, and safe – and it’s transformed the lives of consumers and drivers for the better.

But it’s under threat following the Transport for London (TfL) decision not to renew its operating licence. Petitions are gaining momentum and the courts will battle it out. Let’s hope TfL loses.

Read more: Uber seeks licence talks with London regulators

To the uninitiated, Uber just offers cheaper and more convenient transport, but its benefits runs deep.

Uber’s low prices mean that a trip across town to that restaurant your friends are talking about becomes economical. It means you can book that gig in Alexandra Palace that finishes at 3am. And it means you can make that meeting when the rail network goes down the tubes.

Despite these benefits, mayor of London Sadiq Khan supports TfL’s decision, on the basis of “safety and security”. The only problem is, he’s wrong.

Do you remember those “if your minicab’s not booked, it’s just a stranger’s car” adverts TfL plastered everywhere? Many of us got into those cars anyway.

Before Uber, after stumbling out of a club at 4am, there was no other option. Uber tracks and logs whose car you’re getting into, and provides GPS information and data to the police.

Uber drivers are banned after serious incidents, and TfL is always informed when and why this is done. The drivers know this, and realise it would be foolish to act inappropriately.

There’s always a small section of any population that is foolish, but Uber’s system dissuades fools at the margin. There’s no such dissuasion when you get into a random, unmarked car. There is every reason to think that getting rid of Uber would increase the number of assaults.

Uber also reduces accidents and crime. Data across 150 cities shows that the rate of vehicular accidents falls dramatically when Uber enters a city, with traffic fatalities declining by 16.6 per cent over a year. This could be due to fewer inebriated drivers, or it could be because Uber drivers are better drivers than your average passenger.

Whatever the mechanism, it’s reasonable to think getting rid of Uber would result in more crime, and more people dying on our roads.

The statistics also suggest that Uber reduces assaults and disorderly conduct. This seems to be because exposure to criminals is reduced. Less time walking or hanging around on streets waiting for a cab is less time for bad things to happen. Some of the people catching an Uber are the same people instigating trouble at the end of a night out – it’s better that they have the option of an Uber home as soon as it’s closing time. It is highly possible that banning Uber will result in more disorderly conduct in London’s streets.

As bad as the decision is for consumers – and it’s disastrous – my thoughts are with the 40,000 drivers. Surveys of Uber drivers show that they earn above the Living Wage, value the flexibility of being able to work when they want, and that the vast majority would recommend working for Uber to their friends. I’ve asked hundreds of Uber drivers about their experience personally, and 99 per cent are unequivocally positive.

No ifs, no buts – if Uber is banned, it will destroy the livelihoods of thousands of Londoners.

Revoking Uber’s licence has nothing to do with safety. It’s a classic case of protectionism and regulatory capture by lobby groups trying to fight off competition. And though the case will likely be tied up in the courts for years, drivers will remain uncertain about their future.

With the uncertainty of Brexit, the mayor has done a decent job of talking up London through City Hall’s #LondonIsOpen campaign. Reality trumps rhetoric though. Access to talent, uncertainty over trade barriers and rising property and business rents have spooked the capital’s leading entrepreneurs. TfL’s decision sends exactly the wrong signal for entrepreneurs looking to disrupt other established industries: #LondonIsClosed.

Read more: Uber must brace itself for a winter of discontent

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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