According to social media analysts Impact Social, London responded with “disbelief and exasperation”.
But we didn’t need a social media analyst to tell us that the revolutionary app/jumped-up minicab firm/most evil company in the world (delete according to taste) had been habit-forming for many Londoners. Even the harshest critics of Travis Kalanick, Uber’s recently overthrown CEO, would concede that his technology has changed the way London moves and works. They don’t call it the “Uber economy” for nothing.
But what was more telling was what happened after the furore died down. Londoners did what they usually do in times of transport chaos: seek alternative routes.
“The first day after the TfL announcement we had more than twice the usual number of downloads of our app,” says Matteo de Renzi, managing director of rival ride-hailing app Gett (formerly Get Taxi), which has been in operation since 2012. “Even more interestingly, we had more than three times the requests from corporate clients who wanted to open an account with us. What’s happened is that people who have got used to Uber have been like: ‘Hey! The service I’ve used for the past three months might not be around for ever.’ So, they’ve tried to find out what else is out there.”
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Mytaxi began life as Hailo in 2011 (pre-dating Uber’s arrival in London) and works with black-cab drivers. It merged with the Daimler-backed MyTaxi to form Europe’s largest ride-hailing company earlier this year. After the TfL ruling it dropped its prices by 30 per cent and saw a 250 per cent increase in usage. The pre-Uber market leader Addison Lee has now weathered the storm, invested in its technology and built on its corporate business.
It recently advertised for 1,000 more drivers and has now announced plans to collaborate with Ford on a UK driverless cars project. There are numerous services that connect users with local minicab companies, such as Cab4Now and Kabbee. And there are innovative start-ups such as Citymapper, which compiles sophisticated datastreams about how people move around the city; it recently piloted a “Black Bus” ride-share scheme in collaboration with Gett.
And it could all become even more competitive. London spends more money as a proportion of GDP on transport — 6.9 per cent — than comparable cities like New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Companies have long been twitchy about entering this multi-billion arena, which has only strengthened Uber’s position, turning London into one of its most profitable cities.
Now, however, Lyft — Uber’s main rival in the US — appears to be bracing itself for the challenge. Lyft executives, including head of global strategy Mike Masserman and chief strategy officer Raj Kapoor, recently held meetings at City Hall. Last week, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), announced a $1.1 billion investment in Lyft, whose US market share has increased in the light of Uber’s PR woes.
A new service, Via, backed by Daimler — which leads the driverless car race — is apparently all ready to go, pending approval from TfL. There’s also Taxify, an Estonian start-up with backing from Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing giant that saw off Uber’s attempts to corner the multi-billion-pound Chinese market last year. TfL declined to licence Taxify in September but we probably haven’t seen the last of IT.
“The sector has evolved incredibly quickly but it hasn’t necessarily evolved in the way people expected it to,” says Andy Batty, the UK general manager of mytaxi. “Uber has pulled out of the market in China, leaving it to Didi, and they’ve recently done something similar in Russia where they’ve done a deal with Yandex.
And we continue to see a separation between Uber which has a “one size fits all” approach to expansion that has now caused problems with TfL and people like us, who try to be more adaptable to the needs of individual cities. That means we can dominate in markets where Uber barely features, like Germany.”
Batty has noted a softening in Uber post-ban. “The Mayor did a fantastic job at stressing the four main reasons why Uber’s license hadn’t been renewed, which were all to do with safety. Within a few days, Uber’s tone had completely changed.”
Later that week, YouGov released a poll suggesting that 43 per cent of Londoners supported the decision, compared with 31 per cent who opposed. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s new chief executive, tweeted: “Dear London: we r far from perfect but we have 40k licensed drivers and 3.5m Londoners depending on us. Pls work w/us to make things right.”
It’s quite a turnaround from Kalanick’s “move fast and break things” approach. The hype surrounding Uber has rested on two factors. The first was that a lot of people like using it. It’s cheap for the rider (transformatively so for many of us who could never justify the expense of a cab) and convenient for the driver (who could work when they wanted), Both made effective advocates; London has a 3.5 million rider base and around 40,000 drivers.
But the second was the sheer scale of its ambitions. Many Uber investors bought into the hype that this was a winner-takes-all market; the company would grow so large, so fast that it would achieve what’s known in Silicon Valley as “total platform domination”.
Think Google and search. Or Amazon and e-commerce. Or Facebook and making you feel miserable about yourself. Doom-mongers warned that once it had disrupted its rivals out of business, London would be at the mercy of its surge-pricing model for ever.
Uber usually dismisses such talk. Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, head of Uber for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, recently told the Financial Times: “There are already a lot of competitors in the field where we operate.
We rather see that as a good thing because we think competition gets us to think about delivering the best-possible experience for users and drivers.” In any case, the possibility of domination seems remote now that regulators are challenging Uber.
Some feel TfL hasn’t gone far enough in cutting Uber down to size. “The ruling to ban Uber didn’t mention anything about the conditions of the drivers and it doesn’t challenge the business model,” says Nick Srnicek, author of Platform Capitalism, which examines the ways the tech monopolies can be managed.
“One of the legitimate criticisms of the ban is that it threatens the jobs of the drivers, but one of the ways TfL could mitigate that would be to create its own publicly owned platform.”
This isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound; he cites the example of Ride Austin. When Uber and Lyft were regulated out of Austin, Texas, local entrepreneurs and drivers programmed a workable, non-profit private-hire app within a few weeks; it has proved hugely popular, even now that Uber and Lyft have been allowed back into the city.
Uber has often argued that its main rival is car ownership itself. About 40 per cent of commutes within London are still made by car. But it’s not immediately apparent that ride-hailing technology has eased road congestion; perhaps the opposite. As I look out of my window on to a busy north London high street I can see a “private hire” sticker in every third or fourth car.
According to TfL figures, such licences have increased from 59,000 in 2009/10 to 116,000 today; vehicle numbers have risen from 49,000 to around 88,500. That’s a lot of extra cars on the road. Khan’s draft Transport Strategy warns that while ride-hailing apps offer new possibilities: “If not managed well, the growth of these transport services could result in fewer people travelling by public transport, on foot and cycle.”
De Renzi believes that his recent collaborations with Citymapper offer a way to “sustainable disruption”. “People talk about driverless cars, drone deliveries — that’s all very well. But I’d prefer to look at what we already have and make a conscious effort to make it all work: buses, trains, taxis.”
His Black Bus pilot saw large black taxis running along popular commuter routes (eg, Islington to Aldwych — a headache on the Tube) with riders able to hop on and off en route. “It’s a specific design that didn’t exist in the public network before and it’s £3 per journey. How can we do that? It’s technology. It’s the perfect utilisation of an expensive asset at a peak time.”
It’s too early to say whether all this activity will threaten Uber long term — it remains a $70 billion giant but now it has rivals. As Lyft, Via and others woo Londoners, an Uberless future might not be so unthinkable.
Uber's main competitors
- USP: founded by then 19-year-old Estonian Markus Villig in 2013, the firm has vowed to undercut Uber on fares
- CEO: Markus Villig
- Get around: 30 cities including Paris, Mexico City, Baghdad and London, although Taxify has temporarily stopped operating in London while TfL investigates its licence
- Market fare: Didi Chuxing, the ride-sharing company that forced Uber out of China, was reported to have invested an ‘eight-figure’ dollar sum in August
- USP: the New York- and Tel Aviv-based app is only for ride-sharing, like a rival UberPool
- CEO: Daniel Ramot
- Get around: New York, Chicago and Washington DC, while versions of the app operate in Paris, Kent and Austin, Texas. Now looking to hire in London, Berlin and Rome
- Market fare: in June 2017 it was reported that Via had raised $137 million in financing to date
- USP: a fixed-route taxi service for a flat fare of £3. The collaboration with taxi firm Gett will see cabs running like buses, with users able to hop on and off anywhere along the route
- CEO: Azmat Yusuf
- Get around: the London-based start-up operates across more than 30 cities in Europe, the US, Australia and Asia. In the UK it works in London, Birmingham and Manchester
- Market fare: in January 2016 it was estimated at more than £250 million
- USP: a ‘woke’ taxi app, according to its co-founder John Zimmer. It lets users tip drivers and has announced plans to allow passengers to round up their fare to make a donation to charity
- CEO: Logan Green
- Get around: based in San Francisco, Lyft currently operates in around 300 US cities but is looking to expand overseas
- Worth: US$11 billion