Whatever you think of Uber, it is very clear that the company is taking its reputation problem seriously. Speaking at London First’s London Infrastructure Summit yesterday, Jamie Heywood, head of Uber’s operations in northern and eastern Europe, made a striking attempt to assure some the capital’s most influential business, local authority and transport movers and shakers that Uber is part of the solution to the capital’s air quality and congestion problems, not a rogue contributor to them.
“Uber shares much of the vision of TfL [Transport for London] and the Mayor for a city where people walk and cycle more, drive personal cars less, face less congestion and breathe cleaner air,” he said in his first speech at a public event since joining the company: “It’s clearly been a bumpy road for Uber over the last few years. But we see our licence renewal this summer as opening a new chapter in Uber’s future in London.”
That renewal was, of course, a short term and somewhat probationary one. And Heywood was at pains to stress that a genuine programme of reform of how the company operates is underway. “Under our new leadership we are bringing in improvements for passengers, new safety features and 24/7 telephone support,” he said. “Improvements for drivers include, for the first time, sickness, maternity, paternity and injury protections. We are committed to a new and more co-operative approach to how we work with regulators in cities.”
There was a direct appeal for partnership and collaboration; to “work with and not against others, and that’s something Uber hasn’t been very good at in the past.” Tackling transport issues, “will require continued improvements in public transport,” Heywood said, but, “if we’re really serious about keeping cities moving, the ambition for all of us should be the end of individual car ownership.”
This, he explained, was where Uber could come in. “How can it make sense that the most expensive asset that most of us own aside from our homes is a big hunk of metal that sits idle 95% of the time?” he asked, and questioned the amount of Central London land given over to car parking and the number of London car journeys that move only the car drivers from A to B. A common goal of all present at Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II conference centre should be, he said, “that every vehicle on the road carries multiple people multiple times a day.”
Defining Uber’s “real competition” as “private car ownership”, Heywood painted a picture of a future in which Uber will “fill in the gaps” between “great public transport and better support for cycling,” especially in the outer areas of cities, so that “there will one day be no need for individuals to own their own cars.”
The signs of change are already here, he claimed, in, for example, falling numbers of teenagers in the UK holding drivers’ licences. Uber would go with this modern flow. “We want our app to be a one-stop shop for every transportation option, so if you want to get from A to B you will soon be able to tap our app and see a whole range of choices – not just cars, but also bicycles, public transport and, in some countries, electric scooters too. If the quickest and cheapest way to get you somewhere is to take a bus or a bike, we’ll tell you. That may cost Uber in the short term, but we believe it is essential to our long term success and the success of our cities and communities too.”
Was there any end to this largesse? No. Uber also wants to “help urban planners by opening up our rich journey data for the public good,” Heywood said. It has a new tool called Uber Movement available to that end.
Hail the emerging new model Uber, fully accepted into the mainstream of London’s business, public realm and governance communities? Perhaps. The company was the summit’s headline sponsor, which says a lot, but such as London cabbies champion Wes Streeting MP will take some convincing. I rather liked the observation of the shrewd London-watcher I was sitting next to: “They’ve figured out the problem they want to be the solution to.”