We now know that it was in late 2013, not just last year, when Transport for London knew that driver and rider matching service Uber was running an illegal show in the capital. How this came about can be traced back to events in 2012, during the Mayoralty of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, whose tenure of City Hall will go down as an eight-year disaster, as realisation dawns that he was a waste of both time and money.
At the IATR conference that year, John Mason, TfL’s director of London Taxi and Private Hire, gave a presentation, the slide show from which has been preserved for posterity. The subject of that presentation was “There’s an App for that - Supporting Taxi Booking and Hailing Applications in London”. Note the use of the term “Hailing Applications”.
Here, Mason reiterated Bozza’s Air Quality Strategy, part of which was “The Mayor will also support technologies which encourage taxi sharing and enable electronic hailing”, adding “TfL has adopted a ‘hands off’, very limited regulatory approach to the application of electronic hailing and booking” and “Many different companies now entering into the London market with varying degrees of success”.
Note that there seems to be some confusion between “electronic hailing” and “electronic hailing and booking”. Clearly, for anything classed as Private Hire, it should be “electronic booking” and not “electronic hailing”. That may cause some concern in the cab trade; what will cause alarm is the next of Mason’s slides, titled “Open market and competition”.
Here, apps for black cabs are presented along with those which are definitely not for black cabs - Addison Lee, a longstanding Private Hire operator, and there at the foot of the slide, Uber. Presented as part of “Open market and competition”. The one conclusion that is inescapable from this slide is that Uber is pitched as direct competition for black cabs.
And that conclusion is merely reinforced by the next slide, “TfL Approach to Apps”, where Mason starts by restating “Light touch regulatory approach”, and ends with “Let the quality of product and service provided to passengers dictate market”.
So let’s pick the bones out of all that.
Classing Uber, even if only by inference, as “electronic hailing” is totally out of order. That is not what is provided for under Private Hire rules. TfL’s representative is not actually saying they can get away with what they were found to be doing the following year, but companies like Uber don’t need much of a hint. Laws and rules do not get a mention.
Stressing “Light touch regulation” also hints at a free for all. Including Addison Lee and Uber with black cabs is another hint. Having said TfL won’t be doing much regulating, and concluding with “Let the quality of product and service … dictate market” is so close to giving Uber the green light that this appears to be the conclusion they reached.
So when TfL caught Uber operating an illegal show in late 2013, there should have been no surprise. After all, there had been enough nudges and winks the previous year. And the likes of Travis Kalanick needed nothing more, whether it was London, Paris, Toronto, or anywhere in the USA. Bozza was a useless Mayor - and London is now paying the price.