The idea of “light touch” regulation of London’s taxi and private hire operators, which I noted recently, came right from the top. We know this as TfL’s former director John Mason has made this plain in response to that post. So when Uber’s management flat-out lied to him - more than once - and also indulged in the kind of dirty tricks which should have seen them barred from the capital, they were instead given the benefit of the doubt.
Mason has gone on record to state “They wanted my view as to whether lots of additional regulation was needed as the view in the USA was that it was. At the time … I don’t think TFL or Mayor felt that it was. This was at time of Tory Mayor and desire to cut red tape. It is irrelevant whether I agree or not”. Fair comment. And there was more.
“Unfortunately many think that this was some invite to Uber to not comply. That is simply not the case. It was a presentation that said, at that time, we (TfL, Mayor, [Government]) didn’t think more regulation was needed on stuff like mobile phone use”. The result of that mindset - from well above Mason’s level - we can now see.
We start with a request from Mason to Ryan Graves and Travis Kalanick of Uber: “When we spoke recently you said you would forward some details of the service that is operating in some cities over there as [a] Taxi//PH service without licensed vehicles or drivers but getting a ‘donation’ and they were planning to come to London. Do you have that information please?” Kalanick replied personally.
“The company’s name is Lyft”. That is dirty tricks of the crudest kind - trying to hobble a competitor before they even arrived on the scene in London.
It got worse: Kalanick then asserted, in the same email, “In case there is any confusion, every single UberX driver/car in London is licensed by the TfL per TfL rules and regs”. That may have been true, but what they were doing when working for Uber was not within the rules and regulations, and it’s most likely Kalanick either knew, or just didn’t care. That is so misleading as to be dishonest.
Then came a report from a driver who had been subcontracted to cover Uber’s opening month in London. The illegality leapt off the page: “the system is there so we do not have to provide a controller-based work or pre-booked work, our system is on demand only, customer demand a car using the App, driver accept the job” [my emphases].
There was more. “I covered about 20 days work for UBER through another company, at no time did I receive a job with the destination, driver can only see passenger name and pick up address on map … the App works pretty much like the black cabs App and with UBER, passenger can effectively hail a cab … as passenger can see on the App how many cars [are] available near by”. So Mason went back to Ryan Graves.
“When we discussed, you provided me with assurances that all jobs would be recorded appropriately in in line with the regulations and legislation. I find the comments made to this driver at Kings Cross at odds slightly with what we discussed”.
Ryan Graves replied “I can’t speak to the source of the quote below, but what I can assure you is that our records and application are pursuant to the TfL regulations”.
That is a flat-out lie. We know this as the following year, TfL’s Cliff Llewellyn, chasing up the Private Hire operators’ complaint made via Clifford, Chance, showed exactly where and how Uber was breaking the law, and had presumably been doing since Day One.
Mason took Graves on trust, even apologising for troubling him: “Sorry, just get all this crap thrown at us and this clarifies”. And there was one more detail that got missed.
Before Uber even got started in London, Graves said this in an email to Mason: “I’ve got a few questions about the licensing process for a PHV operator’s licence as it pertains to a company that will not actually own or operate vehicles, but will act in the payment processing realm”. That is the Uber London versus Uber BV problem. Which was also in breach of the regulations. And it was missed at the very start.
John Mason took both Ryan Graves and Travis Kalanick on trust. Why he should have done so is the $64,000 question. TfL may not have “invited” Uber not to comply with the law, but Uber was, under Kalanick - the man who said his competition was “An asshole called Taxi” - not a company that needed an invite. If it could get away with it, it did it.
Ultimately, the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs, and the rush to keep Uber on the road in late 2013 and early 2014, lies with the Mayor. And at that time, London had a Mayor for whom taking responsibility was, shall we say, a challenging concept.
So in addition to explaining wasting money on water cannon, the cable car, the Arcelor Mittal Orbit, the vanity buses, and the non-existent Garden Bridge, London’s formerly very occasional Mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson needs to explain why he should have let an illegal show like Uber rock up on his patch.
And those shafted by Uber’s wild west show need to keep holding his feet to the fire.