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.

 
 
 
 

Two east London boroughs are planning to tax nightlife to fund the clean up. Will it work?

A Shoreditch rave, 2013. Image: Getty.

No-one likes cleaning up after a party, but someone’s got to do it. On a city-wide scale, that job falls to the local authority. But that still leaves the question: who pays?

In east London, the number of bars and clubs has increased dramatically in recent years. The thriving club scene has come with benefits – but also a price tag for the morning clean-up and cost of policing. The boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets are now looking to nightlife venues to cover these costs.

Back in 2012, councils were given powers to introduce ‘late night levies’: essentially a tax on all the licensed venues that open between midnight and 6am. The amount venues are expected to pay is based on the premises’ rateable value. Seventy per cent of any money raised goes to the police and the council keeps the rest.

Few councils took up the offer. Four years after the legislation was introduced, only eight local authorities had introduced a levy, including Southampton, Nottingham, and Cheltenham. Three of the levies were in the capital, including Camden and Islington. The most lucrative was in the City of London, where £420,000 was raised in the 2015-16 financial year.

Even in places where levies have been introduced, they haven’t always had the desired effect. Nottingham adopted a late night levy in November 2014. Last year, it emerged that the tax had raised £150,000 less than expected in its first year. Only a few months before, Cheltenham scrapped its levy after it similarly failed to meet expectations.


Last year, the House of Lords committee published its review of the 2003 Licensing Act. The committee found that “hardly any respondents believed that late night levies were currently working as they should be” – and councils reported that the obligation to pass revenues from the levy to the police had made the tax unappealing. Concluding its findings on the late night levy, the committee said: “We believe on balance that it has failed to achieve its objectives, and should be abolished.”

As might be expected of a nightlife tax, late night levies are also vociferously opposed by the hospitality industry. Commenting on the proposed levy in Tower Hamlets, Brigid Simmonds, chief executive at the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “A levy would represent a damaging new tax – it is the wrong approach. The focus should be on partnership working, with the police and local business, to address any issues in the night time economy.”

Nevertheless, boroughs in east London are pressing ahead with their plans. Tower Hamlets was recently forced to restart a consultation on its late night levy after a first attempt was the subject of a successful legal challenge by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR). Kate Nicholls, chief executive at the ALMR, said:

“We will continue to oppose these measures wherever they are considered in any part of the UK and will urge local authorities’ to work with businesses, not against them, to find solutions to any issues they may have.”

Meanwhile, Hackney council intends to introduce a levy after a consultation which revealed 52 per cents of respondents were in favour of the plans. Announcing the consultation in February, licensing chair Emma Plouviez said:

“With ever-shrinking budgets, we need to find a way to ensure the our nightlife can continue to operate safely, so we’re considering looking to these businesses for a contribution towards making sure their customers can enjoy a safe night out and their neighbours and surrounding community doesn’t suffer.”

With budgets stretched, it’s inevitable that councils will seek to take advantage of any source of income they can. Nevertheless, earlier examples of the late night levy suggest this nightlife tax is unlikely to prove as lucrative as is hoped. Even if it does, should we expect nightlife venues to plug the gap left by public sector cuts?