War on Uber: London caves to the cabby monopoly

By: Ben Ramanauskas

#LondonIsOpen is what you are likely to see branded on bus shelters and underground stations if you were to visit London. The slogan represents a major campaign launched by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan to show that London is united and open to business, and to the world, following the decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. In fact, in his Mayoral Election campaign in 2016, Sadiq Khan claimed that he would champion and support business and innovation in London. A big part of his pitch — and popularity with Londoners — was that he was an ordinary person (I lost count of how often he reminded us that he was the son of a bus driver), and that he would be on the side of people on modest incomes.

It is therefore with a great deal of surprise and disappointment to learn last week that he supported the decision of Transport for London (TfL) to revoke the license of Uber in London. TfL, which is the public body responsible for providing and regulating transport in London, revoked Uber’s license as they believed that they were not ‘fit and proper’ to operate in London.

This move by TfL is the latest in a long line of attacks on Uber. Previous steps have involved increasing the waiting time for an Uber, and also making Uber drivers sit tests involving questions about the aurora borealis and river pollution. These actions, and now the ban, have all been introduced under the pretense of protecting the public and helping the Uber drivers themselves. This is arrant nonsense.

TfL and Sadiq Khan have argued that because of Uber’s employment practices, and in order to protect the drivers, that Uber should not be able to operate in London. Although I’m sure that being an Uber driver can involve long hours, and is very unlikely to make you a millionaire, it is seen as a viable job opportunity by tens of thousands of people. 40,000 Londoners currently work as Uber drivers, many of them attracted to it as it offers them flexibility and the opportunity to make extra money. The decision taken by TfL will mean that 40,000 people could soon be out of work. Those who are in favour of revoking Uber’s license have argued that the drivers have little security and are not adequately paid and therefore Uber should be banned from operating in London. Perhaps Uber drivers don’t enjoy the same level of security and remuneration as those on full time security, but when the license is revoked at the end of September then they will have no security and no pay. Revoking Uber’s license will destroy the livelihood of 40,000 people.

This idea that revoking Uber’s license is a good thing because it protects drivers is deeply disturbing. It is breathtakingly patronising to suggest that people should not be able to enter into employment contracts with Uber as they might be exploited. Uber drivers are adults who are capable of making their own decisions about how they choose to live their lives. They are more than capable of weighing up the pros and cons of becoming an Uber driver without the State intervening. It is infantilising to treat Uber drivers as though they are unable to make informed choices about who they choose to work for.

The claim that revoking Uber’s license will protect people is also patently absurd. Uber is used by people such as myself as an affordable and safe way to travel home after a night out with friends or after working late. Before Uber arrived in London getting home late at night could be difficult and dangerous. For example, many people faced the choice of wandering around the dark streets of London in order to hail down a black cab in order to pay the very high fares, or walking home- a decision which could result in becoming a victim of crime. Therefore, countless Londoners have enjoyed being able to use an app to order an Uber to take them to where they needed to go, in the comfort of knowing that there was a record of the journey and that the fare would be reasonable and fixed in advance. Revoking Uber’s license will mean that many Londoners- and especially women- will now face an increased risk of becoming victims of crime (including rape and sexual assault) if they can not afford the fares of black cabs or feel comfortable using them.

This, again, is disturbing in how it patronises and infantilises people. Revoking Uber’s license removes Londoners’ freedom of choice. They should be free to make their own choices about which form of transport to take. TfL’s decision drastically limits their choice.

However, it is not only patronising to passengers, but it will also make them poorer. One of the reasons why Uber is so popular is because it is much cheaper than the alternative of taking a black cab. TfL’s decision has removed one of the black cab’s biggest competitors meaning that they will be able to increase their prices even further. This will result in Londoners having even less money to save or to spend on other things.

TfL and Sadiq Khan claim that they are looking out for Uber drivers and Londoners. In fact, they have caved into pressure from the powerful black cab lobby and the trade unions which are some of Mr Khan’s biggest supporters. The black cab lobby and the trade unions do not care about Londoners or Uber drivers, rather they act like a cartel whose only care about their own wages. They have used their powerful influence to pressure TfL and the Mayor of London to incapacitate their biggest rival in order to re-establish their monopoly in London.

The decision taken by TfL has nothing to do with protecting the people of London. It has caved into pressure from a powerful set of special interests operating like a cartel. The result will be 40,000 drivers out of work and millions of Londoners who are poorer and less safe.

This article was originally published on Mises.org.

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