From Red Flag Laws to the Uber ban, transport as always been a battle of innovation vs. precaution

Feng Li
London Taxi
Imagine if we had to drive a car – or bus – with a person walking in front it weaving a flag to warn pedestrians today (Source: Getty)

Last Friday, Transport for London (TfL) informed Uber that it would not be issued a private hire operator licence after its current licence expires on 30 September 2017.

Only a few days before, Taxify, the Didi-backed car-booking app that is seeking to rival Uber, had been forced to halt operations in London for breaking rules on private hire operators, just days after it launched. (For those who do not know, Didi is the biggest taxi hailing firm in China, after it defeated Uber there, and it is expanding into many countries around the world.)

For many consumers, Uber is one of the best things happened in London in recent years. It brings some affordable comfort to many Londoners and its millions of visitors, supplementing the expensive, out-dated, unreliable London underground, the slow and diesel smoke puffing double decker buses, and the ridiculously expensive black cabs, whose prices are is akin to a mild form of distortion – not to mention the terrible congestions and congestion charges that restrict people using their private cars.

Read more: Uber CEO writes to Londoners saying sorry "we got things wrong"

Yet TfL wants to kill off one of only a few bright spots in London transport.

In both cases, the decisions were made on the ground of regulations. Perhaps it is time to revisit those out-dated regulations to unleash the creativity and innovation that is more essential for London than any other time in history.

The Digital Economy

We are in the digital age. The UK Research Councils alone invested £154.15m in the last few years to support research in its flagship Digital Economy Programme; and the UK government and its various departments and agencies are all committed to supporting the digital economy – from the London Tech City to numerous other initiatives across the country. The EU invested billions of R&D funding over the years to support the digital economy too, particularly through its Frameworks Programmes, and Horizon2020.

However, look at the global digital economy landscape.

The US has Google, Facebook, Amazon and eBay, the born-again Apple, and a plethora of other digital economy firms, including sharing economy firms typified by Uber and Airbnb.

In China, the famous trio of BAT lead the way – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, along with many other digital economy firms, from to Didi Chuxing and bike sharing firms such as OfO and Mobike, which are now entering the UK and Europe (and other countries).

In contrast, the UK and Europe not only failed to produce any serious unicorns in the digital economy that would get anywhere near the scale of Facebook, Google or Alibaba and Tencent – due in no small part to rigid regulations that stifle innovations – but not TfL wants to shut down the digital economy advantages brought to us by our friends from across the pond.

Red Flag Laws

Back in 1865, the Locomotive Acts (also known as the Red Flag Act) was passed in the UK, a policy requiring self-propelled vehicles to be led by a pedestrian waving a red flag or carrying a lantern to warn people about the vehicle's approach. For a while, this prevented motor cars travelling faster than a horse-drawn carriage.

Some US states passed a flurry of similar Red Flag Laws. The most infamous of the Red Flag Laws was enacted in Pennsylvania in 1896, when legislators unanimously passed a bill that required all motorists piloting their "horseless carriages", upon chance encounters with cattle or livestock to immediately stop the vehicle, "immediately and as rapidly as possible... disassemble the automobile", and "conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes" until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified. (Fortunately the bill did not become law, as the governor of Pennsylvania used an executive veto.)

Imagine if we had to drive a car – or bus – with a person walking in front it weaving a flag to warn pedestrians today.

We can all laugh at how ridiculous these Acts were even if they served a particular purpose back then, and perhaps even made sense to some people. But TfL is now doing a similar thing with Uber. Regulations could not – and should not – stop technological advances and innovations that would improve people’s lives. Uber offers employment opportunities to a large number of people, and provides affordable and convenient door-to-door transport services for a huge number of consumers. If there are issues and concerns, then TfL should work constructively to address them, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Retire out-dated regulations

This reflects a much deeper problem in the UK where everyone talks about supporting creativity and innovation, but many out-dated rules and regulations – and indeed, institutions – make it difficult to implement meaningful changes.

We are in the Digital Economy, and progress will be made with or without Britain. As the UK exits from the European Union, we have a serious choice to make: to embrace change and new opportunities and thrive in the brave new digital world, or continue to hide behind past glory and out-dated institutions and be left behind.

Read more: Read between the lines: London's economy will hail a reformed Uber

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