London could lose all of its Ubers, courtesy of the city’s transportation agency. On Friday, Transport for London announced it would not renew the ridehailing giant’s license to operate in the city, citing the company’s “lack of corporate responsibility.” The license expires September 30, though, unsurprisingly, Uber has declared it will exercise its right to an appeal.
The company is able to continue operating in the city as long as the legal process drags on, but it didn’t wait for its lawyers to prepare their case before dusting off the weapon that has carried it through many a battle: public fervor.
Right after TfL dropped its news, Uber posted a petition on Change.org. “By wanting to ban our app from the capital, Transport for London and their chairman the Mayor have given in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice,” it declared. “To defend the livelihoods of 40,000 drivers—and the consumer choice of millions of Londoners—sign this petition asking to reverse the decision to ban Uber in London.”
Uber announced the attack in its app, and emailed its London users with the subject line: “Save your Uber in London.” By the end of the day, more than 410,000 people had signed their names to the petition.
“Innovation is the future. Shut down Uber and you are literally forcing people to pay more for something unnecessarily,” wrote William Shirriffs. Isabel Torres Pérez offered a simpler argument: “Need Uber to survive!”
Let’s pause for some context. This is but the latest chapter in a years-long scuffle between Uber and British regulators. After the ride-hailing company’s five-year operating license expired this summer, the agency gave Uber a four-month extension while it considered granting it another five years.
There was plenty to ponder. Since deploying in the capital, Uber has been accused of using sneaky shortcuts to avoid paying taxes and squirreling its way out of following cab regulations, part of what opponents say is a mission to destroy London’s ancient black cab industry. And of working to depress working conditions: Uber is appealing a ruling saying it must treat its drivers as employees, paying them minimum wage and providing sick pay.
Meanwhile, all over the world, Uber has apparently declared 2017 the Year of the Garbage Fire. It’s fighting a high-profile case with Google’s self-driving car outfit. A damning account of sexual harassment by a former engineer triggered a company-wide investigation of its corporate culture, and at least 20 firings. The New York Times uncovered a legally dubious digital tool the company used to evade regulators in places like Portland, Oregon, Paris, and China. Oh, and a board coup forced embattled CEO Travis Kalanick to step down from his role in June. (New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi came over from Expedia last month.)
An important point here: The powers that be say they oppose Uber in practice, not principle. “I welcome and embrace these innovations,” Khan wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian. Services like Uber have clearly made life easier and more pleasant for many Londoners, he argued, but: “All private-hire operators in London need to play by the rules.”
Indeed, TfL based its decision on specific critiques of how Uber handles its business, like the way it reports criminal offenses and runs background checks on drivers. It didn’t raise any questions about the company’s impact on public life or society, or even if it exacerbates congestion.
All of which points to the likelihood that London isn’t set on banishing Uber. Rather, it may have pulled the company’s license in an effort to wring some concessions out of the Silicon Valley giant.
“It’s likely this is part of TfL playing hardball with Uber,” says André Spicer, who studies corporate social responsibility at Cass Business School in London. “It will tip the balance of power to TfL and they will be able to get their very reasonable demands out of the company,”
Less knockout punch, more opening move.
But if Uber eventually loses its appeal, it will likely look to strike a deal with TfL, rather than abandon one of the world’s biggest cities. “They’ll come to an accommodation in markets that are important to them,” says Jon Orcutt, head of communications and advocacy for TransitCenter, an urban mobility-focused foundation. It could agree to better conditions for its drivers, to limit how many cars it runs, or expand its demand that all its London drivers use hybrid or electric cars by 2020.
Transport for London may have a regulation-friendly regime on its side, but Uber isn’t unarmed. It has the public. To see how it uses this club, look back to New York City in 2015. When Mayor Bill De Blasio declared his intention to temporarily cap the number of ridesharing vehicles in service, Uber started swinging. It commissioned ads emphasizing how conventional taxis—which tend to cluster in Manhattan and cost more than riding with Uber—were failing the city’s minority communities. It created “De Blasio Mode,” an in-app alternative future that told users all cars were either unavailable or 25 minutes away, and gave them a handy link to sign a petition and “Say no to De Blasio’s Uber!” The campaign hit home, and De Blasio and Uber compromised: Uber would continue to grow, but it would provide city officials with more data on its operations. Orcutt believes a similar situation may play out across the pond: “I can’t imagine it’s different in London,” Orcutt says. “I bet they’ll come to an agreement.”
It’s likely this is TfL playing hardball with Uber.
The public doesn’t always turn out for Uber, however. When the city council of Austin, Texas, created a strict regulatory regime for ridesharing companies that included fingerprinting drivers, Uber, in cahoots with Lyft, put a proposition on the ballot to roll back the rules. Despite spending $8 million on a political campaign and offering free rides to the polls, the duo watched 56 percent of Austinites vote against Prop 1. Uber and Lyft left the city two days later. (They returned this summer, after the Texas legislature passed a statewide, rather lax, set of rules that superseded Austin’s setup.)
In London, the crowd seems to be leaning pro-Uber. Despite Uber’s monstrous string of bad PR and recent complaints about extra traffic congestion on London streets, the service is popular. That’s largely thanks to a lack of likable alternatives. London’s black cabs are among the most expensive in the world, in part because their drivers must pass the famed “Knowledge” test, the written and oral exam that requires they learn 25,000 street names and the most efficient route between any two points in the city. (The requirement made more sense when it was introduced in 1865 than it does in an age where every smartphone provides GPS-based directions.)
Riders can take minicabs, which usually have to be booked in advance, and are infamous for low-quality service. Then there are “dodgy cabs,” unlicensed cars that pick people up outside bars for illegal cash fares. And late at night, when the Tube stops running (it does provide limited “Night Tube” service on Fridays and Saturdays), Uber is a particularly popular way to get home. It’s not the only app-based ride-hailing company in the city, but it’s by far the biggest and best known.
In 2015, then-Mayor Boris Johnson said he’d love to ban Uber, but admitted its popularity: “You’ve also got to face the desire of millions of people in London to travel more cheaply.”
Those hundreds of thousands of signatures won’t help Uber in court, but they could make a difference if the ride-hailing giant and regulators want to strike a compromise before the appeals process wraps up. It might be legal to ban a service that carries 3.5 million Londoners and employs 40,000 drivers, but that’s not the only calculation to be made.
“Public support could make a difference. Many British institutions—TfL included—make decisions on the basis of the “Daily Mail test”, says Spicer, the business school professor. “I.e., would it look bad if it appeared in the Daily Mail?”
After all, there’s a reason Uber directed its fans to address their concerns to Mayor Khan as well as the transport agency. Call it the politics of persuasion.
Aarian Marshall and Jack Stewart contributed reporting.