In a bid to clear up controversy surrounding Uber's operations in London, the city's transport authority, Transport for London (TfL), opened a public consultation to drastically overhaul private hire regulations. A cap on the number of unregistered vehicles in the capital was mooted, as was a Knowledge-like test that would ensure private hire drivers have a better understanding of London's backstreets.
Those proposals, and many others, were soon shot down by the government's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and more than 200,000 Uber supporters signed a petition rallying against the changes. It appears those voices were recognised, because Transport for London has finally published its review and concluded that Uber can largely operate as it always has done.
After receiving 16,000 responses, TfL decided to take forward 13 of the original proposals and amend a further five. It says three proposals "will be investigated further before decisions are taken". One of the first to be adopted will be a "formal English language requirement" and "enhanced topographical test" for new drivers. This touches on the Knowledge-like test first suggested by Boris Johnson. Drivers will also be expected to display their personal and vehicle details to customers before the start of each journey.
Private hire firms will also need to supply fare estimates in advance of their journey, like Uber does already, and operate a fixed landline service for customers so they can speak to someone if there is a problem with one of their rides. Lastly, companies must also ensure that they log driver and vehicle information so that Transport for London can enforce the new measures effectively.
Of the sanctions that would have hit Uber the hardest, most weren't taken forward. This includes the requirement that when customers hail a ride, private hire companies need to wait five minutes before picking that person up. Operators have also escaped having to offer customers the tools to book a ride up to seven days in advance, a service that traditional taxis already provide. Transport for London won't require Uber to remove availability indicators within its app (something that's got it in trouble in the past), nor will it require drivers to be registered to one company at any time.
"This is good news for Londoners and a victory for common sense."
"This is good news for Londoners and a victory for common sense," says Uber UK's Jo Bertram. "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. It means Uber can continue to keep London moving with a convenient, safe and affordable ride at the push of a button."
Action for Cabbies representative Artemis Mercer isn't so happy: "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. 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."
What happens next?
In its statement, Transport for London says it is also seeking approval to alter how much firms pay to operate within the capital. The regulator will update fees to account for the size of the business "to better reflect the costs of compliance and enforcement activity." It hopes that by charging companies like Uber more (it already has 15,000 drivers in London), it will incentivise them to manage their fleet more efficiently and "minimise the number of vehicles they use across London as a whole." This would improve congestion and also reduce carbon emissions.
TfL also wants to have a say over how ads are displayed "inside, from, or on the outside of a private hire vehicle." Because they own their vehicles, Uber drivers can potentially contract their cars out to other sponsors, but Transport for London intends to put a stop to that.
With its final shortlist realised, Transport for London will now spend another four weeks assessing the impact of its new sanctions. The final regulations will then be put to the board at its next meeting on March 17th. Recognising that private hire services being largely exempt from existing taxi regulations got it into trouble in the first place, TfL says it will continue to keep its new sanctions under review to "keep pace with the changing industry and support a modern and thriving trade."
This will no doubt keep private hire companies happy for now, but it may also ensure traditional taxi firms have some form of recourse in the future. Uber may not care: legally it's had everything thrown at it but the kitchen sink and it's emerged unscathed nearly every time. It's going to stick around whether cabbies and critics like it or not.