Seven thoughts on TfL’s decision to suspend of Uber’s licence to operate cabs in London, again

No more? Image: Getty.

Well. Here we go again. Two years and two months ago, Transport for London (TfL) told Uber – the minicab firm that has bafflingly managed to convince the world that it’s a tech company – that it was not a fit and proper company to provide private car services in London. Uber squawked, right-leaning commentators railed against Sadiq Khan for being anti-business, users fretted that they were about to be deprived of a service they found useful…

...and then, so far as the average Londoner was concerned, nothing happened. Despite its threats to take its ball away, Uber ultimately didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead, it appealed the decision, quietly improved its performance in those areas in which TfL said it had been lacking, and then kept its licence. Uber never disappeared from the streets of London. The company, in short, blinked.

And now history is repeating. The company was granted two extensions to its licence, the most recent of which expired yesterday. But once again, TfL has ruled that Uber is not a fit and proper company to operate minicabs, pointing to a “pattern of failures” which place passengers at risk, and has said it will not be renewing its licence.

The company can now appeal the decision, and keep operating cabs while it does so. What does all this mean? Some thoughts.

1. The problems now are not the problems then

In September 2017, TfL’s statement credited its decision to revoke Uber’s licence to three factors: how the company reported criminal offences by its drivers; how it conducted medical and other checks on them; and how it used a piece of software called Greyball to prevent officials from accessing its data.

None of those feature in the list of problems cited by TfL today. Instead, it points to a problem in which Uber’s system allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other drivers’ accounts. This had led to 14,000 trips conducted by unlicenced drivers, which meant they were uninsured. At least one of these drivers had previously had their licenced revoked by TfL. Other problems concerned vehicles without the correct insurance, or the ability of “dismisssed otr suspended drivers” to simply create a new account and keep Uber-ing. (The whiny tweet from CEO Dara Khosrowshahi about how unfair this all is doesn’t even acknowledge any of these very, very bad problems.)

So: even though Uber has acted to address earlier problems, new ones have reared their heads.

2. ...but the song remains the same

But, as in 2017, those problems reflect two big themes: passenger safety, and an apparent lack of respect for TfL’s role as regulator.

And this is, to be blunt, exactly what happened before. TfL is using its regulatory muscle to tell Uber it either needs to raise its game or get out of town. Uber has said it will appeal.

Last time, the courts pretty much took TfL’s side, and put Uber on probation while it worked to correct the problems. Its possible things will play out differently this time – but whatever happens...

3. Londoners won’t notice any change

Check the Uber app on your phone right now. There are still cabs there, aren’t there? For all the noise, if you use the firm’s cabs, the odds are you’ll still be able to use them while the firm appeals the decision.

In fact, you’ll probably be able to keep using them for a long time beyond that, because...

4. Uber will not want to withdraw from London

The company has pulled out of other cities before, in protest at the fact regulators and municipal governments had the gall to imagine it was in some way answerable to them. Some of those markets – like Austin, Texas, in 2016 – were relatively small. Some of them – like Barcelona, last January – were much bigger.

But London, with apologies to readers in the rest of the country, is different. Documents filed with the US Securities & Exchange Commission last April showed that nearly a quarter of the firm’s business happened in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo. That tallies with long-standing rumours that London is one of the few places where the firm is actually profitable, rather than just burning through investors’ money while it tries to build a dominant market share.

So: my instinct is that even if the courts again side with TfL, Uber will simply grumble and do what it’s told, rather than actually pull out.


5. The right is still wrong – or at least looking at this the wrong way

Another way in which history is repeating: right-leaning commentators are in a flap that this shows that Sadiq Khan hates private enterprise, London is closed for business, and a load of other annoying nonsense.

It’s rubbish, sorry: this is exactly how regulation should work. An operator isn’t safe enough, so the regulator has revoked its licence. If the operator improves, it can keep its licence. Great! If the operator doesn’t improve, we’re better off without it. Fantastic! Either way, the consumer wins. This decision isn’t about being against business: it’s about being anti-bad business.

6. “But minicabs are often unsafe!” is not a killer argument

Sure, minicab firms are often not great on the driver safety front either. My own personal horror story: the one that had been driving me to Heathrow for several minutes before I realised he was watching the cricket on his iPad rather than, for example, the M4.

But that is an argument for regulating minicabs more, not one for regulating Uber less. One of the advantages of Uber swallowing a big share of the private hire market is that it makes it easier to improve safety through regulation. We should embrace that, not whinge about it.

7. This decision is London’s gift to the planet

Not many cities are in a position to force Uber into anything: just ask Austin or Barcelona.

But London is. And an Uber that is less blasé about passenger safety and less high-handed with regulators will make things better in cities all over the planet.

This is not an emotion one often has a chance to feel, but – I’m oddly proud of my city’s transport regulator today.

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

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.