Uber claims it opens cities up – but really closes them down

Uber drivers protest the company's pay policies in New York City, February 2016. Image: Getty.

Most of us know the story of what Salon’s Elias Isquith calls “Wall Street’s favourite disrupter”. Uber, the ride-hailing service run primarily through smartphones, is a global economic success story.

In 2008, it was but an idea held by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. Today it is a profit-making “unicorn”, recently valued at $62.5 billion.

How Uber came to be worth such significant sums is a question often posed. Integral to its success was its speedy efforts at connecting riders with drivers through smartphones. It became an on-demand disruptor business and, in the process, alluringly branded itself as a service “for the good of all” that puts “people first”.

Uber takes from over-priced taxis, facilitates livelihoods for its drivers, gives to the needy rider and sticks it to urban regulators – or so the story goes.

Much closer to the truth may be that, when Uber isn’t wrapping itself in cloaks of communal good, it is busy trying to institute a monopoly on ride-hailing. It actively encloses what could be a more open city in which riders and drivers work to benefit city residents.

Now you’re open, now you’re closed

In other words, Uber “opens” cities to “close” them. It's just another intermediary capitalist (like eBay, Airbnb and PayPal) that profits from the needs of typically urban people connected to the internet. It's an extension of capitalism, a business trying to maximise its market share.

Uber “opens to close” a city in three steps:

  • It disrupts the existing taxi monopoly (a closed system) through marketing and paying fines incurred by its drivers;

  • It entices riders to download its app, drivers to “share” their car, and urban regulators to acquiesce to the popularity of the Uber service; and

  • It excludes ride-hailing alternatives through its maximised market share.

The marketing Uber uses to disrupt the grip one or more taxi companies have on a city is to present a rich rhetoric of being the “alternative”, somehow “grassroots” and, most importantly, a “communal” choice for drivers and riders. It casts itself as a Robin Hood in the struggle against unjust, or simply outdated, urban regulators.

This branding, Uber’s cheaper price and its convenient app make it an alluring option for ride-hailers. So long, cabbie dynasty, this city is now open.

But because Uber grows within the shell of the taxi industry all it really does is open a city to enclose it for its own benefit. It does this through consistent marketing to riders, but also by enticing drivers to partner with Uber with promises of higher pay and a be-your-own-boss mentality.

Uber also crows about creating tens of thousands of jobs and getting 1m women into work. This helps to get regulators onside.

A city is “closed” when Uber’s enclosure is complete: when it has successfully disrupted taxis, changed ride-hailing regulation and has a city’s residents on board (so to speak).

We say closed because an “Uber city” is a city captured by intermediary (middleman) capitalism. Defeated taxis are creating their own apps, and alternatives abound. But Uber’s market dominance makes it very difficult for more meaningful alternatives to emerge.

Market dominance means the exclusion of competitors and the control of the means of production so that profits keep rolling in. “Capture your market” is a mantra for a reason. And that reason is because it works – it’s Capitalism 101.

An open-city alternative

The need to get around a city safely and conveniently shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity for businesses like Uber to cash in. 

A truly open city would be one where residents are invited, supported and backed by their city government to create their own ride-hailing apps. Riders still get picked up for a fair price, drivers still get paid more, but profit goes into a public trust to ensure the apps provide good service but also to fund resident-specific projects, like bike roads fully separated from cars.

Not only will this keep jobs and money inside the city, but it also puts a vital transportation resource into the hands of city residents and not a foreign business. The need to get around a city safely, conveniently and with as little carbon emissions as possible shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity for businesses like Uber to cash in. It should rather be treated as a common pool resource.

Since the majority of people in cities still depend on cars and roads to get around, chasing the wrong incentives can lead to chronic traffic jams and a host of other problems.

City residents don’t want traffic jams; moving around is a vital part of their daily lives. Uber doesn’t necessarily mind traffic jams because of surge pricing and a rolling meter – it still makes money. Ironically, despite this conflict of interests, Uber is the $62bn Wall Street poster child and the open-city alternative is excluded.

Uber may open cities from taxi rackets, but it closes them off to the possibility of more radical and meaningful alternatives.The Conversation

Jean-Paul Gagnon is assistant professor in politics, David Carter associate dean of research and Fanny Thornton assistant professor of law at the University of Canberra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.