Big Win For Uber In London As Regulator Drops Major Rule Changes

London’s transport regulator TfL has concluded a review of a public consultation into changes to the rules for private hire vehicles, dropping a raft of measures that would have substantially impacted ride-hailing app Uber.

Among the measures TfL is abandoning are proposals to outlaw the ability to display a real-time location of a car for hire within an app; an imposed minimum five-minute wait period between ordering and obtaining a ride; and a requirement that operators offer the ability to pre-book a ride up to seven days in advance.

As you’d expect, Uber lobbied fiercely against the proposals during the three-month consultation period — dubbing them “bureaucratic” and encouraging its users to sign a petition calling for TfL to drop the proposed changes. Uber’s petition went on to gain more than 200,000 signatures.

Today TfL said its public consultation attracted more than 16,000 responses. Among the measures it is now intending to take forward are:

  • A formal English language requirement for drivers.
  • Guaranteed fare estimates for customers in advance of their journey.
  • The provision of driver and vehicle details to customers, including a photo of the driver, before the start of each journey.
  • Private hire operators to ensure that customers can speak to someone in the event of a problem with their journey.
  • Even more robust ‘hire and reward’ insurance requirements.
  • Improved record keeping and real-time provision of driver and vehicle information to TfL to make enforcement even easier and more effective.

The measures will be put to the TfL board for approval in March.

Responding to the outcome of the review in a statement, Uber’s Jo Bertram, Regional General Manager in the UK, described it as “a victory for common sense,” adding: “We’re pleased Transport for London has listened to the views of passengers and drivers, dropping the bonkers ideas proposed last year like compulsory five minute wait times and banning showing cars in apps.”

For its part TfL argues the changes it has settled on will enhance safety standards “in light of the impact of new technology.” But it remains concerned about the rising numbers of private hire vehicles in London — noting that the number has increased from 59,000 in 2009/10 to more than 95,000 now, and adding: “This has contributed to wider challenges for London such as growing traffic congestion, illegal parking and areas of poor air quality.”

So Bertram’s other comment — that the TfL climb-down on more stringent measures means “Uber can continue to keep London moving with a convenient, safe and affordable ride at the push of a button” is not a little ironic. More vehicles on London’s streets will not yield improved traffic flow. Au contraire. But of course Uber isn’t going to shout about that…

TfL notes that London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has been having discussions with central government to push for legislation to enable TfL to restrict the overall numbers of private hire drivers and vehicles in order to reduce congestion. However it adds that the government has been “reluctant to pursue such legislation”. And without central government backing for a change in the law to cap PHV numbers nothing is going to happen on that front. So Uber is likely to breathe easy for now.

However TfL does say it is now considering the “impact and feasibility” of removing the Congestion Charge exemption for private hire vehicles in central London — again as a measure to tackle pollution and reduce congestion.

It notes that doing that would require a variation to the Congestion Charging Scheme Order — which would be subject to statutory consultation requirements. So, in other words, there would be another consultation process required before Ubers (and other PHVs) might be required to pay to enter central London. So again, Uber isn’t going to be overly concerned in the short term.

That said, TfL’s own estimate puts the number of PHVs circulating within the central London Congestion Charge zone as increasing by more than 50 per cent in the last two years. “This means that 1 in 10 vehicles entering the zone is now a private hire vehicle,” it notes. And such massive traffic increases are hardly sustained.

So it’s possible central government might end up feeling public pressure to enable regulators to better manage the influx of tech-enabled PHVs in future. Not least when you consider increasing awareness of poor air quality in London. Something has to give in future. And the cleanest and least road-hogging form of urban transportation is not an app-hailed car; it’s a human-powered bicycle.

In related Uber news, a group of supporters of London’s black cab taxis this week kicked off a crowdfunding campaign they’re hoping will finance an application to secure a judicial review of the legality of Uber’s PHV licence — arguing that TfL failed to uphold the existing law when it granted Uber a licence to operate in 2012. At the time of writing the group has raised nearly £50,000 of the initial £600,000 they’re seeking to fund the legal action, with 54 days left for them to raise the rest of the cash.

Commenting in a statement on today’s TfL review ruling, Artemis Mercer, who leads the Action for Cabbies campaign group behind the judicial review crowdfunding initiative, said: “TfL’s failure to regulate the swelling London private hire industry is proving to be an epidemic and they are now struggling to contain it.

“What’s worse is TfL is simply passing the buck to the Government when tackling soaring congestion. This should have been thought through before any licence had been granted in 2012.”

“When Transport for London granted Uber a licence in 2012, it became a law maker instead of the law enforcer it should be – it has since failed to regulate the industry appropriately and adequately protect the lives of passengers,” she added.

“The blurring of lines between the original two tier sector continues and effectively allows private hire operators to ‘ply for hire’ via an app so they can just congregate where they know there will be lots of people and wait.”