Where London leads on the game-changing public transport decisions, the rest of the UK invariably takes note and ultimately follows suit. It was the decision by the newly-formed London Transport in the 1930s to abandon tramways that sealed the fate of big city tram operations after World War 2. Many cities replaced trams with trolleybuses; when London threw in the towel there in the early 1960s, that was the end for that technology, too.
These major precedents may not yet be weighing on the mind of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his fellow modern-day transportation robber barons, but the decision this week by Transport for London not to wave through a renewal of Uber’s five-year operator’s license really does mean that the tide may have finally turned. The new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has not been afraid to make the tough decisions which his predecessor ducked.
Under the occasional presence of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, wasteful vanity projects such as the Cable Car, all those buses that are not Routemasters, and of course the Garden Bridge, were waved through. Not any more: Khan has effectively killed off the Garden Bridge fiasco, and now Uber has been given a renewal of its license - but only for four months. And it may not be renewed beyond that point.
While TfL has told “Uber London Limited has been granted a four-month private hire operator licence. This will allow us to conclude our consideration of a five-year licence”, the Guardian noted “Another factor in TfL’s deliberations is its consultation into private hire vehicles. The proposals could see the licence fees for Uber and other large private hire operators rise dramatically, from about £3,000 over a five-year period to more than £2m”.
This would be peanuts for Uber, which has a war chest measured in the billions of dollars, but their operations are losing money at a worrying rate. If they have to devote more resources to ensuring the health and safety of drivers and riders, and also treat their drivers like employees, those losses could multiply.
On top of that, many Uber drivers are not even managing to bring in the minimum wage, often meaning this apparently private enterprise is being subsidised indirectly by the state through tax credits and other benefits. That is not good enough.
Worse, Uber’s weasel words - “Millions of Londoners rely on Uber to get a reliable ride at the touch of a button and thousands of licensed drivers make money through our app. We look forward to continuing to help keep London moving” - are jaw-dropping dishonesty. The over-supply of private hire vehicles within the capital, which is mainly down to Uber, is clogging up already congested roads and slowing traffic to a crawl.
Uber never was about technology. It was about driving out established taxi and private hire providers and replacing them with a monopoly that can then be used to screw over the travelling public. As such, it belongs in the same place as all the other unsuccessful such attempts - in the dustbin of history. TfL may just have helped it on its way.
Uber’s media cheerleaders have fallen silent. And as losses mount, regulators and Governments are finally acting. The brief age of Uber was for a time, but not for all time.