Today, thousands of drivers of London's iconic black cabs are taking part in a possibly illegal demonstration in response to how Transport for London (TfL), the city's transportation agency, is treating Uber. The drivers plan to cause congestion which Kabbee, a mini cab app company, believes will cost the London economy an estimated £125 million. Licensed taxi drivers are also holding protests related to Uber across other European cities today.
The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) believes that Uber, the San Francisco-based transport technology company, is operating illegally in London. Thanks to the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, it is illegal for a London vehicle with a private hire vehicle license to have a taximeter. Up until yesterday Uber's website stated that anyone who wanted to be an Uber driver in London must have a private hire vehicle license. Today those requirements remain the same, however in response to the London protest Uber has opened to licensed black cabs.
TfL disagrees with LTDA and believes that the phones used by Uber should not be considered taximeters because they are not physically attached to the vehicle:
Smartphones used by private hire drivers – which act as GPS tracking devices to measure journey distances and relay information so that fares can be calculated remotely from the vehicle – do not constitute the equipping of a vehicle with a taxi meter.
However, TfL has asked the High Court to rule on the matter. LTDA's secretary general, Steve McNamara, believes the court is unlikely to announce a ruling before the end of the year.
McNamara has used blunt language when discussing Uber and its presence in London:
This is not some philanthropic friendly society, it's an American monster that has no qualms about breaching any and all laws in the pursuit of profit, most of which will never see a penny of tax paid in the UK.
Becoming a driver of one of London's black cabs is a long process. In order to be a London black cab driver you need to pass "The Knowledge," a rigorous test on London's thousands of streets, roads, and landmarks, which takes years to prepare for. Not only do those hoping to become London cabbies have to spend years studying London, they also have to pay the relevant fees to complete the application process.
Speaking to the BBC, London black cab driver Lloyd Baldwin said:
Our beef with Uber is that these drivers have come straight into London, and have been licensed straight away by Transport for London. We're regulated to within an inch of our lives.
We don't do protests willy-nilly for petty things, we feel it's our only course.
We just want them to be treated exactly the same as we are.
Baldwin's frustrations make sense in light of the time and money invested into becoming a driver of one of London's iconic taxis. But, as in other jurisdictions, the answer is not to make new and innovative companies like Uber conform to already out-of-date regulations and legislation, but rather to liberalize the market Uber and London black cabs are competing in. When the Private Hire Vehicles Act was signed in 1998 the iPhone was still nine years away, and "The Knowledge" test, which began almost 150 years ago, predates cell phones (never mind smartphones). Regulations such as the ban on private hire vehicle license holders from having taxi meters are out of date, and it is long past due for them to be repealed in order to allow traditional cabs to compete with companies like Uber.