A lot has happened since Friday, when some hoped and many feared that Transport for London was on the point of running Uber out of town. That was never going to happen in the short term and almost certainly not in the long. Subsequent events have underlined this. But there is still work to be done before the licensing authority and the private hire app firm can come to terms and a new operating licence is issued.
A sort of peace process is now underway. Conspicuous foreground manoeuvres have been significant but sterner stuff is going on behind the scenes. The Mayor’s speedy rotations through brisk approval of TfL’s decision to nervy rearguard in the face of a then 500,000 (and rising) opposition petition, to his endorsement of Uber chief Dara Khosrowshahi’s happily-timed open admission that the company must change its ways, together with a request to TfL to make itself available for talks, tell part of the story. It shows the pressure there is to reach a settlement. The harder part will be hammering that out.
TfL’s published reasons for declining to grant a new five-year licence from the start of October specified concerns about public safety, but these were also illustrations of a broader dissatisfaction with the company’s attitude to private hire regulation. Those will have to be dealt with too, and in the context of the inevitable sizing up by both sides of their respective legal strengths.
One issue of contention is thought to be the fine detail of the Uber bookings process. Across the globe, different jurisdictions seem likely to have different rules governing how bookings are received and by whom. Can Uber be compliant in all of them? However, given that any variations reduce to a fractions of second, would the courts regard any impropriety on this point as important?
This is the sort of angels-on-pinheads calculation that is almost certain to have already been made, with the results factored in to the framework of forthcoming conversations. These are pencilled in to start early next week.
In the meantime, Uber is expected to lodge an appeal against TfL’s decision before the end of this month, ensuring that it can carry on functioning in London at least until that process has run its course (which could be a long one). One possibility for moving matters forward is the creation by Uber of a new London company, a sort of Uber 2, with a brushed up prospectus and rehabilitated outlook which could make its own, separate licence application and, if accepted, render the appeal redundant. In that eventuality, a short term, semi-probationary licence seems a possibility.
The good news is that Mayor Khan, the passenger public and Uber have a shared interest in getting this conflict resolved and emerging from it happy, fragrant and and looking good – in the Mayor’s case, perhaps avoiding the lasting discomfort Uber has caused his counterpart in New York.
TfL is under orders to play its part in making that happen and, whatever other forces are ranged across the London roadscape, history shows that it does not want for muscle. In 2012, the then owner of private hire giant Addison Lee instructed his drivers to make use of bus lanes, as black cabs are allowed to do, in defiance of TfL rules. Long story short, a stop was put to it and subsequent relations, under different company ownership, are much improved.
Let’s hope that’s a good omen that goodwill, good sense and a good outcome will result. It is, after all, unquestionably what Londoners want. Not for nothing has the verb “to uber” come about.
For an excellent and exhaustive appraisal of the full Uber situation, find time to visit the peerless London Reconnections.