TfL just told Uber it wasn’t a fit and proper company to provide cabs in London. Here’s why that’s a good thing

A tale of two cabbies: Uber and a black cab. Image: Getty.

I’ve never been an enthusiast for the ride-sharing-company/disruptive tech giant/let’s-be-honest-it’s-just-a-minicab-firm-with-an-app Uber.  I’d love to pretend there was a highly principled reason for this: that it treats its drivers appallingly, that it won’t take responsibility for those drivers’ actions, even that it’s making life intolerably hard for London’s army of hard-working black cabbies, who always know the way, are always ready with a cheeky smile, and are never sexist or racist or over-priced or nothing.

But the truth is, I’ve just had rotten luck getting cabs out of Uber when I needed them. The entire selling point of Uber was that it was cheap and convenient. When you’ve not found it to be either, particularly, it’s difficult to have any goodwill towards a company which is, let’s be honest about this, completely bloody appalling in every other sense.

At any rate, it’s difficult to for me to work up any rage in response to Transport for London’s announcement that it has ruled that Uber London Ltd is “not fit a proper to hold a private hire operator licence”, effectively banning it from the streets of the capital. Meh. Good, probably.

The ban won’t happen immediately: the licence runs out on 30 September, and anyway the company has 21 days from now to appeal, during which time it can keep running cabs. But after Friday 13 October, should the appeal fail – and should Uber do nothing to change TfL’s mind on this – it’s game over.

Where did Uber go wrong? The TfL statement points to four factors:

  • Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.

In other words, when Uber drivers did terrible things – and let’s be honest, we’ve all heard the stories – Uber had a tendency to shrug and say, “Nothing to do with me, guv.”

  • Its approach to how medical certificates are obtained.
  • Its approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained.

Translation: Uber was not doing enough to show it was doing thorough background checks on its drivers.

  • Its approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London – software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.

This reads a lot like Uber was not only being unhelpful to the authorities, but was actively obstructing them. The impression you get is that the firm saw its relationship with TfL as entirely one-way: we deliver cabs, you say thank you. That’s all very well for 4,000 word manifestos posted on Medium by the sort of tech bro who read Ayn Rand at too formative an age, it isn’t actually a workable transport policy for the real world.


There’s a common subtext to all four of these things: Uber was not taking TfL seriously as a regulator. When asked to improve, it fobbed TfL off, on the assumption that TfL would blink first. This assumption has just turned out to be catastrophically, hilariously wrong.

There will be many people will be angered by today’s decision. Some – including many on the left, who’d normally show more concern about zero hours contracts and poor workers rights – complaining that TfL has just made travel more expensive for Londoners. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat has even compared the decision to an attempt by Sadiq Khan to “switch off the internet”, as fine as example of Cleverly’s Law as you’re likely to spot in the wild today.

Such arguments are, of course, nonsense, for two reasons. One is, basically, regulators gonna regulate. TfL is supposed to ensure the safety of taxi passengers: Uber wasn’t cooperating, so no more Uber. TfL is quite literally doing its job.

The other reason this decision is a good thing is that it looks suspiciously like a negotiating tactic. Today’s decision won’t immediately change anything for the average Uber-user. The firm has a chance to appeal – and that appeal is vastly more likely to be successful if the firm actually addresses some of the reasons why it lost its licence.

My suspicion is this was decision was never intended to actually ban Uber from the streets of London. Rather, it’s an attempt to show the company that TfL can and will regulate it out of existence, if it doesn’t start doing better. Using its regulatory muscle to improve standards is exactly how a public authority should treat misbehaving private companies.

So: Uber likely can keep operating in London, well beyond mid-October. All it needs to do is improve its system of background checks, and start taking passenger safety seriously. Easy. Your move, lads.

You can hear me discuss this story with Stephen Bush on our latest podcast.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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.