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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.