To make our cities truly accessible, we need to start subsiding Uber

Last year London's black cab drivers brought the city to a halt to protest Uber. Image: Carl Court/AFP/Getty.

“Uber has been amazing,” says Lauren. “When my legs are bad and I can't face walking getting an Uber is just so helpful.”

Lauren has an invisible disability, the sort of lazy person you see going one stop on the bus because she's in pain. “A lot of the time a bus just isn't an option. It's just not convenient. Being able to get call a cab and get to where I need to be is a real life saver.”

But Lauren is unusual: many disabled people are entirely excluded from the sharing economy.

Disabled people are excluded from a lot: just look at the wheelchair symbols on the TfL map. But every licensed London taxi is meant to be wheelchair accessible. One of the reasons black cab drivers find Uber so irritating is that the private cab firm can charge a metered fare without the added cost of running an accessible vehicle. 

In a way, then, Uber already receives a subsidy – but a subsidy that goes entirely to those who can get in and out of its cars.

We subsidise bus and train fares too, but we insist they offer accessible services. Isn’t it time for a similar arrangement for Uber?

As public transport becomes more personalised, it creates an incredible opportunity to offer disabled people greater freedom. Working out how to make Uber and similar services accessible is more important than bemoaning that they aren't already.

The cross-subsidy disabled people receive from the fact black cabs are wheelchair accessible is difficult to calculate, but the bus subsidy is large. From 1997 subsidies for disabled and elderly passengers rose from almost nothing to nearly £1bn pounds. Including payments for rural bus routes, subsidies account for 45 per cent of all bus operators’ revenues. Whether a direct subsidy per journey, a flat fee per mile travelled or some other arrangement, a public subsidy isn't a ridiculous idea.

The government pays a proportion of the fare for each bus journey; this amount is low as bus fares are generally lower than cab fares. A similar value of subsidy per Uber journey wouldn't make a big difference to long journeys – but it might mean the difference between a trip to the local shops and not going out at all. Just getting to a bus stop can be difficult, especially when your final destination is further away again on the other side. Such small differences really matter when you have reduced mobility.


The sharing economy has always been a euphemism for exploiting valuable assets more efficiently. But until recently a lot of disabled people have been excluded from sharing in these efficient services: an Airbnb doesn't need to meet the same accessibility standards as a hotel.

But this needn't be a giveaway; in exchange for subsidy, Uber could be required to add an accessible option alongside the ubiquitous Honda Prius. The firm has already trailed an accessible option in the US, and you can hail black cabs with the UK app. 

Until now I have elided how unpopular Uber are – or rather, while their services are incredibly popular, many people do not like them. Uber has been accused of intimidating journalistsnot paying its fair share of taxnot protecting its female drivers, and more. With this in mind it is easy to balk at the idea of offering them a subsidy.

But Stagecoach employed aggressive expansion strategies when it was a young company, often scheduling its buses to arrive minutes before its competitors. (Its owner, Brian Souter, used part of the fortune this earned him to helped bankroll opposition to the repeal of the infamous Section 28.) 

Making the sharing economy more accessible isn't optional: in fact, it will only become more important. We have already decided that we will subsidise public transport, directly and indirectly. We are not above subsidising companies we may not like if the cause is right. Uber is emblematic, but any accessibility subsidy would have to be firm neutral so competitors like Lyft aren't unfairly disadvantaged.

It sounds controversial at first – but subsidising Uber would be consistent with present policy and step forward for improving accessibility.

Left Outside is a pseudonymous blogger based in London. He tweets here.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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