London Mayor Sadiq Khan – the first Muslim mayor of any major western city – is currently in a stand-off with the mobile app based cab company Uber for the last one week.
Transport for London (TfL), the government regulator for running public transport in Britain’s capital announced that it will not be renewing Uber’s licence to ply taxis because of “public safety and security implications”, shocking both Uber drivers and passengers.
Apart from appealing the decision in the courts, Uber started an online petition urging the London Mayor, who is the chairman of TfL, to lift the ban, and managed to garner nearly a million signatures in the last six days.
Around 3.5 million Londoners are registered with Uber and many youngsters feel that the app-based cab company revolutionized transport in the city.
Till now, people who couldn’t use the underground or buses used the famous black taxis. By coming into the market, Uber is said to have slashed these prices and is hailed by its supporters for “breaking the monopoly” of black cabs which had become synonymous with London.
Background checks on drivers
TfL alleged that Uber did not carry out proper background check on its 40,000 drivers, a few of whom have been accused of sexual harassment and assault of women, their approach to reporting criminal offences was poor and they used a software that could be used to block regulators from gaining full access to the app.
Facing the ire of both Uber drivers and customers, Khan said: “I know that Uber has become a popular service for many Londoners but it would be wrong for TfL to licence Uber if in any way this could pose a threat to Londoners safety or security”.
Fred Jones, Uber’s UK head of cities, accused the Mayor and TfL of caving into pressure from the black taxi lobby that “wants to protect the status quo and reduce consumer choice and competition from London”.
Interestingly, the fight has both racial and political undertones. The 20,000 black cabs, which ply in London have mostly male, white, working class drivers and are being backed by Nigel Farage, erstwhile leader of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Farage campaigned extensively to bring Britain out of the European Union using anti-immigration scare tactics.
Political, racist undertones
At least 90 percent of Uber’s 40,000 drivers are from ethnic minority backgrounds, mostly first generation immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
“There is a huge disparity in socioeconomic conditions of BME (black minority ethnic) citizens and their white British counterparts. And for many of them, Uber was a way to earn a living, however modest, and come off benefits. I wonder what regard TfL gave to their legal duty to prevent discrimination as part of its decision making process” said Iqbal Wahhab, former chairman of the Department of Work and Pensions Ethnic Minority Advisory Group.
Sadiq Khan – the son of Pakistani immigrants and whose father worked as a London bus driver – belongs to the left-of-centre Labour Party, appears to be batting for the black cabs. Khan argues that he would not compromise with the safety of Londoners and wanted companies that abided by the rules.
Despite online support for Uber it was the company’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi who blinked first and apologized for the taxi app’s mistakes in London.
“While Uber has revolutionized the way people move in cities around the world, it’s equally true that we’ve got things wrong along the way. I apologize for the mistakes we’ve made,” said the Iranian-American businessman.
“We will appeal the decision on behalf of millions of Londoners, but we do so with the knowledge that we must also change,” said Khosrowshahi.
Also read: Uber suspends use of self-driving cars after crash
Khan quickly seized on the apology as a way to get out of the stand-off and said that even though there is a legal process in place he would tell TfL to meet with Uber and begin talks. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday called TfL’s decision “disproportionate”.
“Yes there are safety concerns and issues for Uber to address, but what I want to see is a level playing field between the private firms and our wonderful London taxis, our black cabs, our great national institution,” May said in an interview with the BBC.