Uber is in court to appeal London license loss by claiming it’s changed

Uber is in court in the UK today to try to overturn a decision by London’s transport regulator last fall to withdraw its license to operate in the city — where it claims to have some 3.5 million regular users.

Its appeal is being heard in Westminster Magistrates Court from today, with the hearing expected to last for several days. The company can continue to operate its service in London while it appeals the decision.

Transport for London (TfL) sent shockwaves through the ride-hailing giant last September when it rejected Uber’s application to renew its license on the grounds the company is “not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence” — a long history of rule-defying behavior finally catching up with the company.

TfL criticized the company’s approach and conduct, saying it demonstrated “a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications” — including how it reported serious criminal offenses, and explanations it gave for its use of proprietary software (called Greyball) which it had developed internally to try to prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.

Notably, the court will be deciding whether Uber is fit and proper to hold an operator license at the time of the appeal hearing — rather than determining whether TfL made the right call to refuse a renewal last year.

So operational changes Uber has made since then will be taken into consideration.

In its favored media mouthpiece — the London Evening Standard newspaper, whose editor, George Osborne, consults for major Uber investor, BlackRock — Uber’s UK general manager Tom Elvidge has been given space for a lengthy op-ed where he admits the company “got things wrong along the way” before setting out the case for Uber having turned over a new leaf.

“Over the past year we’ve been working hard to put right past mistakes as we’ve gone through a much-needed period of reflection and change,” he writes. “Our new global CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, is establishing a new culture and direction for the company from the top, while in the UK we’ve brought in three experienced independent directors to help us stay on the right track. If there are times when we fall short, we are committed to being open, taking responsibility for the problem, and fixing it.”

Talking to Politico last month, Khosrowshahi — the Uber outsider tasked last summer with cleaning up its problematic legacy under founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick — said technology companies need to take greater responsibility or prepare to have responsibility imposed upon them by more regulation.

“We’re open to doing business with cities in the way in which cities want to do business,” he told the publication. “We’re not going to be absolutist in our approach, we will adjust on a local basis.”

“This was a company that had a very particular culture that worked for it during the unbelievable growth years, during the startup phase. But it was time for the culture to change,” Khosrowshahi also added.

Among the changes Elvidge flags up are a cap on driver hours that Uber brought in in January (this after rising political pressure — including explicit scrutiny of gig economy practices by UK MPs); an incoming 24/7 phone support line for the UK (a measure that the Uber of three-years-ago was lobbying against, along with a raft of other rule changes TfL was considering and which that Uber railed against as “bureaucratic”… how times change!); and the launch of insurance products for drivers and couriers in Europe — including a big expansion of cover to 21 European countries from this month.

Although — on the latter front — Uber continues to face criticism over how its business model classifies service providers on its platforms (i.e. as self-employed contractors, rather than workers). And a 2016 decision by UK employment tribunal judged a group of Uber drivers to be workers — a decision Uber continues to appeal.

At the end of last year Europe’s top court also ruled against Uber’s regulation-swerving claim to be just a technology platform — judging it a transport provider service instead — a decision that firmly closed the door on the old Uber playbook of claiming local taxi regulations don’t apply to its business.

Meaning Uber really does have to work with cities and play nice if it wants to grow its business. (And it has been selectively expanding in Europe, at the same time as parking its service in other markets where regulatory conditions remain unfavorable — so the company is generally abiding by political traffic lights.)

Elvidge also claims that Uber has improved its working relationship with the Met Police — whose criticisms of its conduct were core to TfL’s license decision last year — saying it now “proactively” reports “any serious incident related to an Uber trip in London”.

Another operational evolution he flags up is that Uber is sharing “anonymised and aggregated data” from millions of trips — via its Movement tool — to help transport planners “identify bottlenecks and make informed decisions”.

In February TfL published a policy statement setting out its intentions for adopting transport regulations that could mesh well with the fast-changing sector — and the statement called for operators to share “travel pattern data” with it. So Uber has clearly responded positively to that.

In its policy statement TfL also said it was looking at expanding accessibility by requiring a minimum percentage of private hire vehicles to be wheelchair accessible. And again Uber looks to be trying to show it’s listening, with Elvidge saying it’s “working to make wait times for wheelchair-accessible vehicles even shorter and an extra 1,000 drivers will soon go through disability equality training”.

He also lays out Uber’s intention to go multi-modal in time — including by adding “public transport and cycling options to our app, so we help more people ditch their own cars and tackle congestion too”.

Uber does now have its own e-bike division, Jump, so this is a natural step for the company to take — and the direction of travel generally for urban mobility. But air quality and traffic congestion have been key areas of policy concern for TfL and London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan — so there’s a clear underlying political pull to this Uber gear change too.

Elvidge says the company will go fully electric in London by 2025, adding that it will be setting out more details on the “plan to get thousands of diesel cars off the road” in the coming weeks. “We are… determined to help the Mayor with one of his biggest priorities: tackling air pollution in the capital,” he adds.

Another change Uber is keen to spotlight going into the court hearing is the recent launch of Uber driver advisory groups in the UK — as a mechanism for it to take and respond to their feedback, with Elvidge claiming Uber is “acting on what they tell us”.

Although — also today — the IWGB Union has put out the results of a survey it conducted with around 500 private hire vehicle drivers in the UK and which it claims shows there’s an “epidemic of violence in the trade”.

The survey found that 55% of all private hire drivers have been physically assaulted at work; 78% have been threatened with violence; and 80% have been victims of hate crime.

For Uber driver specifically just under half (49%) said they have been assaulted, but the percentages for threats of violence and hate crime were the same.

While 75% of Uber drivers surveyed said the firm “rarely or never” supports them with police complaints including disclosure of the identity of the offending passengers; 67% said the firm “rare or never takes responsibility for their safety”; and 68% said they rarely or never receive training on safeguarding or vulnerable passengers.

Uber declined to comment on the IWGB survey results when we asked.