Londoners are generally fond of cabbies. Even though the drivers of the capital’s iconic black taxis are often grumpy and morose, they do seem to offer a connection to a piece of London tradition. But if you – like me – have hailed a cab in the last few days, you’ll likely have heard your driver ranting and raving about a California-based tech company called Uber.
A little background is probably necessary. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA), the union that represents London’s black-cab drivers, has become the latest in a long line of similar bodies the world over to wage war on Uber, an app that arranges car pick-ups in big cities. The problem, the drivers allege, is that the app’s payment system is the same as a taxi’s meter – something Uber is not licensed to use.
Uber’s lawyers have fought back, however, claiming that the company’s business model is quite different – they simply “connect drivers with riders” and do not employ the drivers or own the cars they drive. Therefore, they cannot be called a traditional taxi company and the same rules cannot apply.
The argument, as you can see, essentially boils down to a legal technicality and a lot of nitpicking.
Most Londoners are probably sympathetic to the cabbies’ plight. After all, we generally don’t like it when big multinational companies swan across the Atlantic and act in a way that seems to twist or bend the rules. We like the underdog. And so it is surprising that the LTDA has managed to trip itself up so sensationally in the matter of just a few days.
Their first mistake was to bring this issue so directly into the public consciousness. This story ran and ran for days and became, essentially, free publicity for Uber; every newspaper in the land was writing about how comprehensively they undercut the prices offered by black cabs. The app registered an 850 per cent rise in new London users.
The second mistake was to stage an organised protest against Uber, which involved a huge number of taxis driving incredibly slowly around the English capital. This meant that even those people who were looking for a black cab that day were forced to find another means of getting home. Well, they found it. And guess what? It was that app they’d downloaded a couple of days before – that one off the news.
Matt Alagiah is a London-based researcher for Monocle.