The high court’s decision in London that Uber’s taxi app is legal will be welcomed, not just by Uber, but by technology companies and start-ups across a range of sectors around the UK. Despite Britain’s heritage as the birthplace of world-changing developments and innovators, from the industrial revolution to the architect of the world-wide-web, too often entrepreneurs have argued they are being held back by arcane laws that constrict innovation.
Only last week, a 180 year old law was cited to state that ‘hoverboards’ are illegal on our roads and pavements. In today’s decision, perhaps we are seeing the first signs that our legal system is evolving to reflect a rapidly changing world.
Nothing lasts for ever. Black cabs’ USP used to be ‘The Knowledge’ – the years that drivers spent learning how to navigate London’s labyrinthine road network before they were given their license to operate. Now everyone has instant access to ‘the knowledge’ via the map apps on their smartphones. This has transformed the way we get around, and it makes sense in the eyes of the public for this technology to make their taxi experience easier and better too. Uber has successfully tapped into two key elements for customers – the democratisation of information, and the accessibility of a service you can book and pay for on the go, where you know the name of your driver and get to rate them (and be rated by them) after every journey.
Technology has changed the balance of power on the streets. We are becoming a nation of convenience super users, and London’s black cabs are fighting what many see as a rear-guard action to protect a monopoly that is no longer justifiable or even relevant. PLMR commissioned a YouGov poll on this issue, which found that a majority of Londoners are in favour of taxi apps like Uber’s, with three quarters saying black cabs should take contactless payments, and nearly a third believing that black cabs will simply not exist in their current form 20 years from now.
Uber has also fought a good game. Black cab drivers have relied on old-fashioned, and often unpopular, methods to make their case – mass drive slows, bringing traffic in central London to a halt, arguably breeding resentment amongst Londoners caught up in the ensuing chaos. A different kind of disruptor. Uber, on the other hand, took to social media to call on Londoners to sign an online petition asking TfL to ‘put riders and drivers first’. Within hours over 100,000 people had signed up.
Even the Mayor of London, who black cab drivers may have felt they could rely upon to protect a globally recognised London icon, has flip-flopped. At once, calling for black cabs and Uber to find common ground; yet also – before today’s ruling – arguing the Uber app was ‘breaking the rules’.
London’s black cabs are a vital part of this city’s cultural and economic iconography. No Londoner would want to see a city without them. But they will have to adapt, and adapt fast, if they are to survive in the long term. Not only in how they go about their business, but in how they communicate with the people who hold the key to their future.