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.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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