Amer Hasan is chief executive of UK cab comparison service minicabit
In the seven years I have run minicabit, an online cab booking platform, there have been two Fridays in that time which were the most intense.
One was a few years ago when my (successful) pitch was filmed on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, and the other was last week when Transport for London refused to renew Uber’s license to operate from the end of September.
I picked up a lot of noise about how TfL’s decision would damage London’s transport system (overlooking the century long availability of tubes, buses, taxis, riverboats and cycles) and that even minicabit, as the UK’s largest cab comparison website, should prepare for life after Uber in our London operation.
Both are not quite true and it’s important to view the broader context of TfL’s decision. This is especially important since, at over £9 billion, the UK is the largest cab market in the world per capita with London representing almost 40% of that.
Firstly, despite its slick technology and Silicon Valley ethos of seeking forgiveness rather than permission attracting $11.5 billion in funding, Uber in the UK essentially operates as a locally licensed private hire or ‘minicab’ firm, albeit a virtual one.
It functions alongside approximately 3,000 other private hire firms that already support over 70,000 drivers in London so it must face the same scrutiny to meet ‘fit and proper’ operating requirements that its rivals must adhere to.
It’s been argued that Uber has been allowed to follow its own rule set for too long and so this is TfL evidently showing its teeth as a regulator. No doubt Uber has to improve some of its practices and in addressing its internal turmoils this year, it will likely reset how it operates within local regulatory frameworks in future.
The other perspective has been the public’s reaction – setting aside the ‘I told you so’s’ who’ve long viewed Uber’s presence with suspicion for various (often vested) reasons – an online petition protesting at TfL’s decision has gathered tens of thousands of signatures.
While Uber has a formidable lobbying machine that can effectively marshal such local campaigns, it is clear there is generally positive consumer support for Uber.
However, if one analyses the comments behind this support, a recurring theme is the fear that, without Uber, the clock will turn back with Londoners having to seek out cabs on the street or pay much higher fares and with cash.
This is no longer accurate – other online platforms are out there offering the ability to order London black taxis (which now take card payments and are shifting to zero emission vehicles) or, as with minicabit, find better prices from local, rated, private hire firms including for the suburban areas of Greater London that Uber doesn’t easily serve.
Indeed, minicabit powers the online cab booking platform for Heathrow Airport, London City Airport, Visit Britain and Ascot among many others, in a travel and leisure sector where websites would traditionally list phone numbers of local cab firms for customers to call up.
And so all these examples point to the positive of what the likes of Uber represent – progress in what has been a low tech, old school cab sector that has forced its legacy players to raise their game and enable online platforms like ours to flourish, to the benefit of the end customer.
I expect Uber and TfL to ultimately resolve their differences and the ban to be overturned. There are other potential icebergs that Uber could face down the line such as how its drivers are operating where they are not locally licensed, how some of their pricing is set at unsustainably subsidised levels, and how they could compete against multiple new entrants offering autonomous cab fleets. But that is all for another day.
Only 17% of the UK’s cab bookings are currently transacted online, even including Uber, and that is set to grow and grow.
Judging by the flood of applications last Friday to our network from London minicab firms, it is clear they do not want to be left behind. Perhaps addressing this is what TfL’s decision is ultimately driving at.