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What is Uber and why has it caused a black cab protest?

Andrew Williams

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Uber

Uber vs the Cabbies

Drivers of black cabs are not happy. On 11 June, 10,000 of them are protesting by driving slowly around the Trafalgar Square area of London, causing congestion whose potential cost has been estimated at £125 million.

It’s all because of Uber, a cab app for iPhones and Android mobiles. But why has it gotten everyone so angry?

What is Uber?

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UberFirst, a little primer on Uber. It’s an app that lets you virtually hail a taxi. You can do so from a location other than where you’ll meet the driver too, making it perfect for getting a cab from a restaurant as you’re getting the bill, or from a friend’s house.

No awkward phone calls, no flailing of arms. And you can even see where your driver is in the app as you're waiting.

There are already 3000 Uber drivers in London, and it has proved a smash hit elsewhere too. It started in California, and as of April 2014 was available in 100 cities across the world.

It’s a neat idea, and one we’ve seen in slightly different forms before. In the UK, Kabbee is one of the better known ones.

Why has Uber caused a strike?Uber 1

If it isn’t the first cab app in London, why is Uber causing so much of a fuss? It’s about how the app operates.

Where other cab apps give you a fare quote before you take the cab, letting you know how much you’ll have to pay, Uber only gives you a rough estimate. The final fee is determined on the time taken and the distance – the app can (mostly) accurately estimate one, but not the other.

The London cab drivers’ argument is that this constitutes a taximeter, which is the idea behind the device that you see in black cabs – the thing that ups your fare, seemingly every second or two at 2am. So what’s the issue?

By law only black cabs are allowed to use these meters in London. This is something that is meant to be enforced by Transport for London, but TfL claims the Uber mechanism does not constitute a taximeter. The cabbies disagree – and we have our impasse.

TfL’s argument is that because the app does not require a physical connection between the device and the car, it doesn’t count. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association might argue it’s a minor point of semantics.

On 4 June, TfL asked for a high court ruling on the matter, to settle the issue once and for all. To further inflame the situation, the LTDA (the cabbies’ association) claims Uber is dodging UK taxes in the way it operates, something that is sure to cause additional interest in the newspapers in coming days.

What do you think? Is this a lot of fuss over nothing or is Uber doing over a London institution while TfL shrugs its shoulders?

Next, read our feature on apps to save you from a transport strike

Jmac

June 11, 2014, 8:59 am

It's because they want to keep a tight grip on their grubby little cartel. Black cab drivers undergo rigorous examinations to qualify and pay hefty fees for their licence (in fact, the right to drive a black cab in London represents a serious nest egg for most cabbies as it can be sold on for a large sum of money when he/she retires or changes career) and to maintain a Hackney carriage.Their argument is that this should entitle them to exclusivity over the metered taxi business in London, and it's an understandable position.

The problem is it's also an outmoded business model trying to survive in a brave new world, and the drivers are (rightly) terrified about competition from new entrants leveraging new technologies, the 800 pound gorilla among them being Uber. Uber is awesomely convenient. No waving your arm around in the rain trying to hail a cab; no being put on hold with a call centre while they try to find you a vaguely proximate cab; no fumbling around for change; no rickety black cab - a few taps on the screen and a car rocks up (while you sit in a nice warm pub waiting for it, and your phone buzzes to let you know when the driver's outside), takes you to where you want to go, and out you get, while your credit card is seamlessly charged behind the scenes without so much punching a PIN into a machine or signing your name. If the service is doing well now, in the European summer, those convenience factors mean it's going to do even better when it's 2 degrees outside and lashing down with rain.

The "Knowledge" (in a previous era the London cabbie's trump card) is of limited use in the world of GPS and Google Maps (which every Uber driver has by default, since that's the technology that sits underpins Uber); the cars are typically (in my experience) more comfortable than a black cab (though no guarantee you can sit in the back without removing your top hat, which is the reason for the London cab's distinctive shape, trivia fans); and the convenience of the whole ecosystem is unrivalled.

The cabbies have every reason to be running scared. That having been said, I abhor all forms of industrial action and unions' strong-arm attempts to force the continuation of artificial barriers to fair trade (which is what this is) are the worst of all. What they should be doing instead is reinventing the London cab to compete or complement Uber - either by joining every cab in London to Uber's network (which would be awesome); or by developing a competing system that rivals Uber's convenience and user experience. They've had plenty of opportunity to do this. The question is whether Uber has now gained so much momentum that it's too late to catch up.

Prem Desai

June 11, 2014, 11:06 am

Totally agree with you.

You cannot stops apps like Uber by revolting. People will always choose what is cheaper/more convenient.

Whilst I do sympathise with the black cab drivers, the phrase 'if you can't beat them, join them' comes to mind.

PGrGr

June 11, 2014, 2:59 pm

I don't have much sympathy for the cabbies, as they've had this coming for a long time. Classic failure to innovate in the light of a changing market.

I read a story about this in the Independent online a while back. The comments section was enormous, and 99% of the comments were in praise of Uber, and held nothing but contempt for the black cab drivers. I think everyone understands the arguments, although the degree of sympathy for individual drivers whose livelihoods are at risk varies. I just hope the High Court rules in line with the public mood on this one.

Antonio

June 11, 2014, 10:01 pm

How about a word for black cabbies = zero innovation and kinda like the torment.

There's strikes ALL across europe right. Okay, so how much money could EVERYONE of those cabs make - lets say, 2 quid each. Times that by - well every cab and europe and you have yourself enough to

1. Hire a world class marketing team
2. Develop and app that's USER CENTRIC.
3. Press and Publicity
4. Get a spokesperson - brand speaker {could be bought}
5. Make a campaign and probably win and not LOOSE hearts.

Maybe compete with a virtually unlimited fund and war chest.

If they crowd sourced then even more money.

No, it's better tools down workers and WHINGE!

ElectricSheep

June 12, 2014, 7:21 am

Dear Black Cab drivers, clogging up London isn't going to endure you to the public. You provide a professional & safe service that Londoners really appreciate, at the expense of way too higher prices. Either form a competing service and lower your prices or you'll risk becoming nothing but a tourist trinket. Sadly.

Kevin Chong

June 12, 2014, 2:38 pm

Disruptive use of technologies like this will happen; it's only a question of when and how. Maybe the taxi-licencing system needs to change

mode11

June 13, 2014, 2:11 pm

The recent strike was effectively a massive publicity stunt for Uber. I hadn't heard of them before, whereas now everyone in London has.

The reaction by the cabbies shows how much they fear Uber's proposition. London institution or not, they know the public ultimately chooses price and convenience - people may *value* the local high street, but still shop in supermarkets / on the Internet.

As previous posters have said, they would be much better off funding development of their own competitive app and / or lowering their prices, than throwing their toys out of the pram.

johnhenry3

September 15, 2014, 1:24 pm

Uber is not that much cheaper in my city but is much more convenient and easier. I always treat cabbies very nicely and tip well because I want great service but I find you do get a lot of angry ones and distracted ones because they have a hard time making a living. Still no reason to treat your customer badly but at least with cabbies there are rules and safety regulations and you know the drivers name, number and the company if you have a complaint or issue.

On the other hand with Uber drivers there have been way too many cases of sexual assault claims(US mainly) and woman being contacted by their drivers afterwards or fondling complaints and creepy exchanges on social media later on. This is weird and not acceptable. The company first stated that the name and personal information of a rider is not displayed to the driver. Yet if you speak with other cities or Uber reps they say that the driver does know during the trip only then it is deleted. So which is it, yes or no that they have your info? They are texting you but they say the app scrambles the number, this is not true.

So I looked into becoming an Uber driver just to see how easy it is. Sorry but it is pretty much like filling out a form on a website to purchase something with a few extras and a 45 minute to an hour "orientation" or training meeting where most of it you are filling out further forms. I do have a single(not big) charge on my record and that was fine(I did not tell them but gave permission to check), so I am not sure if they checked further? They did not look into my driving history that much and the orientation is really just a customer service brief and how the company would like you to conduct yourself.

So in the end I am a very nice guy(can be a jerk if need be) but I would be wary of the drivers and the background checks they provide for them. I decided not to go through with driving for them, just wanted to see. But from what I found your driver could be just about anybody. I know being a cabbie is not that much different but there are way more regulations and you need(in my country) a taxi licence to drive a passenger in your vehicle. Whereas with Uber it is technically a software company and a ride share service with prices just a bit lower than a traditional cab. If that makes you feel safe if you are a woman and the driver "may or may not" have your personal info(phone, email, first and last name or address) and they have not gone through that many checks well, I think you might want to reconsider convenience. Just my opinion, stay safe everyone.

Holly138

September 18, 2014, 6:14 pm

My driver turned off his gps and then charged me £85 to do a 14 mile journey. Had to give him cash otherwise he wouldn't move. Uber only have record of first part if journey, which I was charged an additional £13 for. Frightening uber can't track drivers. Won't use them again. Do not feel safe travelling with them and was clearly robbed. Uber are doing nothing.

Matt1975

December 16, 2014, 11:22 pm

I aggre with Holly, I was in a cab with 2 friends and I was the last drop off. I fell asleep and was having a diabetic hypo and the cab driver decided to drive around and the total bill was a whopping £190, even though the total journey was only approx 20 miles!!! Outrageous and the cabbie was awful!!

mazza isuk

December 26, 2014, 10:14 am

Black taxis make way too much money and there prices are way to high! I work in the city and prefer to use uber everyday as it is much cheaper then the black cab,good luck to the cheapest i say and for me its uber!

Adam

January 21, 2015, 11:44 am

I like über

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