Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The ride-hailing company could be banned from its largest European market after passenger security concerns trigger a new crackdown by Transport for London.
On Monday, London City Hall issued a statement ruling that the Uber was “not fit and proper” to operate in the city, which is the ride-hailing company’s largest European market. Uber now has 21 days (during which it can still operate) to lodge an appeal.
To readers who follow the travails of London’s mobility scene, this situation may sound familiar: The U.K. capital vowed to dump Uber two years ago. Mayor Sadiq Khan cancelled the company’s license in September 2017, citing safety concerns and poor working conditions. But then it reinstated Uber’s right to operate the following year, without ever having actually ordered its vehicles off the street.
Today’s ruling might likewise be open to future revision, but the reasons given for refusing the company a license renewal are different—and perhaps more serious, because they suggest an ongoing culture of loose attention to passenger security. London’s overseeing transit body, Transport for London, says that a blip in Uber’s system means that its London customers have taken up to 14,000 rides without being covered by insurance.
Earlier this year, Transport for London discovered that at least 43 drivers unauthorized by Uber had been accepting rides in the city. They had been able to do this by uploading their photos to the profiles of authorized drivers, and picking up rides on their accounts. It’s not entirely clear exactly who these drivers were, but it seems the majority were people job-sharing an Uber license with a registered driver, even though they had no authorization to do so.
These unauthorized drivers formed only a fraction of Uber’s 45,000 driver workforce in London, and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has condemned the TfL decision as “just wrong,” citing improvements in Uber’s working methods in recent years. Still, the potential problems these roughly 14,000 unauthorized rides could have caused are huge. TfL thus says it “currently does not have confidence that Uber has a robust system for protecting passenger safety.”
Those applauding the move include the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, which represents drivers of the city’s black cabs: “It’s all about public safety and the mayor has taken the right decision,” Steve McNamara, the association’s general secretary, told The Guardian. But former Uber driver James Farrar, who helped found the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, warned that banning the company’s cars would “come as a hammer blow” to drivers. “We are asking for an urgent meeting with the mayor to discuss what mitigation plan can now be put in place to protect Uber drivers.”
The 2017 ban never took ride-hailing cars off the streets—the company stayed in operation under appeal—but it did serve to batter Uber’s U.K. reputation during a particularly tumultuous era. TfL ruled that, following 32 alleged sexual assaults by drivers in one year, Uber was failing to protect sufficiently its customers from sexual assault. When Uber’s right to operate in London was fully reinstated in summer 2018, it was suggested that then-CEO Travis Kalanick’s “gung-ho attitude,” which had prioritized growth and scorned regulation, could be blamed. Since then, the judges ruled, Uber had put in better screening processes and generally cleaned up its act.
But had it? Today’s ruling could be do lasting damage to the company, because it suggests that the bad old days of loose security and regulation-flouting may not be over. That impression may be harder to shake off a second time around.