Uber London Revs Its Lobbying Engines Against “Bureaucratic” Rule Changes

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Transport for London, the local body responsible for transport regulations in the U.K. capital, has published a set of proposals for changes to regulations pertaining to the operation of private hire vehicles (PHVs) in the city — with the stated aim of improving passenger safety.

Any rule changes would of course affect the operation of Uber’s on-demand business in London, so the company has mobilized its U.K. users, urging them to sign a petition against the proposed new rules — which it dubs “bureaucratic”, arguing they would signal the end of the Uber “you know and love.”

TfL’s new PHV consultation runs till late December, with any new rules set to be implemented early next year — based on the feedback it receives on the proposals. It’s the second consultation TfL has kicked off this year. The earlier March consultation garnered some 4,000 responses, and has been used to shape the proposals in the latest consultation, according to a TfL spokesman.

The regulations on PHV in London date back to 1998. The spokesman noted there has been a big increase in PHVs in the city in recent years — which is why it’s consulting on changes now. Recent stats from the U.K. government’s Department for Transport recorded a 25.9 percent hike in PHVs operating in London between 2013 and 2015. Over the same period London taxi numbers increased by just 1.5 percent.

Writing in the consultation documents, TfL states:

After careful consideration of the responses to our initial consultation, we are bringing forward a package of proposals for further consultation that we consider will strengthen the regulation of private hire services in London. Our overriding concern in developing these proposals is to improve passenger safety. We are also committed to maintaining a clear distinction between the taxi and private hire trades and further improving the quality, safety, accessibility and overall standard of private hire vehicle provision in London. We believe that the proposed measures will contribute to this aim and invite comments and views before making any changes.

The proposals run to some 25 points — and include several changes that would have an obvious impact on Uber’s operations. Uber is of course able to participate in the consultation, by submitting its feedback to TfL, along with all the other PHV firms in London.

Among proposals TfL is considering are that:

  • Operators must provide a booking confirmation to passengers that provides the driver’s photo ID and details of the vehicle booked
  • Operators must provide booking confirmation details at least five minutes prior to the journey commencing
  • Improved security for app-based booking platforms aimed at reducing the likelihood of an app being used by a person other than the licensed driver — such as by requiring a driver periodically logs back in, such as via facial recognition tech or a fingerprint reader
  • Operators must offer the facility to pre-book up to seven days in advance
  • Operators must have a fixed landline telephone number available for passengers to contact them at all times
  • Operators must not show private hire vehicles being available for immediate hire, including virtually within an app
  • Operators must specify the fare prior to booking being accepted
  • Operators must record the main destination for each journey at the time of the booking
  • Drivers should only work for one operator at a time
  • Controls on ridesharing in licensed vehicles
  • Controls on advertising displayed in vehicles, as well as on them

Uber does not offer a pre-booking facility so that’s one proposed change that would cause an obvious operational headache for the business.

The Uber app also displays bookable cars in the user’s vicinity in real-time — which is pretty much the killer feature of the app, from a UX point of view, so being forced to ditch that would likely make Uber a whole lot less sticky. Add to that, the proposed requirement to have a five-minute pre-pick-up wait time would also erode Uber’s convenience — near real-time pick-ups from a customer’s location are a key reason the app has been able to poach customers from existing PHV businesses, and steal a march on traditional taxi businesses.

Responding to the TfL consultation, Uber provided the following statement to TechCrunch — attributed to Jo Bertram, its Regional General Manager, UK, Ireland and Nordics — in which it claims the changes are aimed at protecting London’s black cabs, rather than improving passenger safety:

These bureaucratic new rules will not improve your ride.  They’re designed to address the concerns of black cab drivers, who feel under pressure from increased competition. But the answer is to reduce the onerous regulations cabbies face today — not increase them for everyone else.

Uber now has more than 1 million users in the U.K., along with 18,000 drivers in London alone.

The company has used that platform to mobilize a lobbying effort to fight the proposed changes, messaging U.K. users to ask them to sign a petition — and following similar lobbying tactics to those it deployed in New York recently to steer off regulatory changes there.

At the time of writing, Uber’s petition has gained just under 80,000 signatures (or around 8 percent of its U.K. user base) — with the company touting that it’s getting a signature per minute.

In the consultation document, TfL adds that it already intends to take forward certain other measures — including a requirement for disability awareness training, noting that groups representing disabled passengers have told of “many issues” with availability and “more general attitude to those with disabilities.”

TfL writes:

We will include a requirement that introduces training for private hire drivers, to include disability awareness. This will be developed from autumn 2015 and all new licence applicants will be expected to undertake the training prior to becoming licensed. Renewal applicants will also be required to undertake this training ahead of the renewal of their licence.

Update: Uber is not the only taxi app complaining about TfL’s proposed rule changes. London based Kabbee, a minicab booking and price comparison app, said in its view most of the new rules are “ultimately designed to benefit black taxi drivers, over the 78K+ private hire drivers in London”.

In a statement, CEO and founder Justin Peters said: “We strongly urge TfL to consider making a set of requirements that are applicable and fair to both parties, as each one plays an essential role in providing a safe and reliable transport service for Londoners.”

“We disagree with a five minute delay for bookings, as GPS technology enables operators to provide a better customer experience and reduce waiting times. Reduced waiting times benefit drivers and Londoners alike so TfL should be careful putting forward legislation that means everyone waits longer,” he added.