Uber’s High Court victory could spell the beginning of the end for London cabbies
Uber's high court victory this morning is a crushing blow for London's cabbies, who have been fighting a long and bitter battle against the rise of the minicab app.
The cabbies' objections to Uber are numerous. However, the central argument is that the app – which can be used to rapidly book and pay for minicabs – is acting as a taximeter and is therefore in breach of UK law.
However, according to today's ruling:
"A taximeter, for the purposes of Section 11 of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, does not include a device that receives GPS signals in the course of a journey, and forwards GPS data to a server located outside of the vehicle, which server calculates a fare that is partially or wholly determined by reference to distance travelled and time taken, and sends the fare information back to the device."
In other words, the cabbies' central argument has been killed off. A smartphone is not a taximeter under the law. If cabbies' want Uber banned it would require new legislation, which so far is not even under consideration.
The ruling is devastating for the cabbies but it also raises questions for Boris Johnson and TfL who brought the case under political pressure from cabbies. The London taxi trade are relatively small in number and many cabbies do not even live inside London. However, they have always exercised a disproportionately powerful lobby over London-based politicians.
The mark of this power could be seen at the recent Conservative and Labour London mayoral hustings, where every single candidate came out in favour of the cabbies. Not a single candidate even dared to admit ever using Uber. Unlike those Londoners who find it difficult to afford black cab fares, MPs are regular users of black cabs and until recently there have been few, if any, high-profile political backers of Uber.
There are signs that this could be changing. The recent City Hall demonstration by cabbies' against Johnson's handling of Uber was a PR disaster for the cabbies after a security guard was assaulted as protesters forced their way into the building.
However it was the launch of TfL's consultation into regulating minicabs which was the real turning point. The consultation, which proposed that Uber drivers wait at least five minutes before picking up customers and that car locations should be removed from the app, was attacked by everyone from free market Conservatives to Corbyn-voting liberals.
More than 130,000 people have already signed a petition against the proposals. By contrast there are only around 20,000 cabbies registered in London. The scale of this resistance to restriction of Uber appears to be turning the political tide. The Tories' mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, who just last month was strongly in the cabbies' camp, was the first to come out against the plans.
"Things like the five-minute pause, I don’t think any customer's going to understand why there is a cab hanging around nearby and they have to wait five minutes," he said earlier this week
Business secretary Sajid Javid was even clearer in his objection, saying that: "ordinary Londoners [want] choice, they value competition. That is something a lot of people want to look at.
"From my own point of view I'm not interested in heavy handed regulation, I want to make sure that consumers are put first."
Labour have so far yet to break cover. Their mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan has until recently been strongly in favour of the cabbies' position. When TfL launched their recent consultation, Khan welcomed it and insisted that "We must ensure we protect Londoners and our historic taxi trade."
However, asked again about it this week, Khan insisted to LBC that he was not in fact "anti-Uber.
The controversy over Uber is not straightforward. London's black taxi drivers have spent large amounts of their time and money in the belief that they would have exclusive rights to pick up roadside customers.
The launch of the Uber app has fundamentally undermined that. Cabbies are right to feel angry about that. There are also serious environmental concerns about the huge surge of minicabs now entering London on a daily basis, causing extra congestion and pollution in a city which is already heavily polluted and congested.
And yet the case for Uber looks increasingly difficult for cabbies to defeat. Uber's app is already hugely popular, with more Londoners signing up every day. Far from killing off the service, the cabbies' campaign against it has so far only served to promote and strengthen them.
Relatively cheap and hugely convenient, Uber cabs offer users advantages both over black cabs and more traditional minicabs. With Uber, passengers don't have to worry either about carrying cash or booking cabs well in advance. It also has big advantages for the minicab drivers themselves. I was speaking recently to an Uber driver who said he was regularly mugged by passengers when he worked as a traditional minicab driver. He then told me that one mugger had even told him that Uber was now putting him out of business.
It is still possible that cabbies' can win future legal or political victories over Uber, as they have in other countries. It is also possible that cabbies can adapt and modernise to win over new trade in the digital age. However, there is something inevitable about the rise of Uber and similar minicab apps.
History has shown that major technological changes inevitably lead to groups of workers losing their trade. So just as electricity put people who lit gas-lamps our of work, so too does the development of GPS and smartphones look likely to put many cabbies out of work as well. Once the technological genie is out of the bottle, it is almost always impossible to put it back in.
As that reality sinks in, political support for cabbies also looks likely to drain away as well. Today's High Court ruling is by no means the end of London's great black taxi trade, but sadly it could well be the beginning of that end.