Scoring a victory in its ongoing battles with regulators and taxi driver unions in England, Uber continues to drive forward in its expansion plans. The company got a green light to continue operating in London and elsewhere fights on in a series of brawls with officials.
London’s transport regulator said Thursday that Uber can legally operate, for now, in the British capital. The decision by Transport for London (TfL) is based on the technology that powers the start-up’s service. The argument whether Uber is an application or Web tool versus a type of taxi service continues to be a regulatory issue and battle ground in city after city, country after country. The West Coast technology start-up has faced protests tied to the question in major cities from London to Madrid as it tries to expand across Europe, and continues to face questions in the U.S. too.
London’s taxi rules stipulate that only licensed black taxis can have meters and the ability to charge riders based on distance and time. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association maintains that it is a criminal matter for any private vehicle to use a meter to charge passengers. Additionally, Surface Transport, which governs the city’s above-ground transit options, pointed out that others have alleged that Uber is also not a licensed operator of Private Hire Vehicles, which typically charge based on general routes not meters such as an airport van service.
Uber’s drivers use a smartphone-based technology to charge their riders based on the length of their trips. The city’s licensed cab drivers claim that Uber’s methodology violates this regulation. TfL disagrees that Uber’s practices are similar to the meters in traditional taxis.
The protests against Uber that taxi drivers have waged have probably backfired on them by increasing awareness about Uber and how it operates. Uber has experienced an 850 percent increase in people signing up in Britain after black cab street protests created gridlock last month around Trafalgar Square. Uber has also tried to placate the skeptical taxi drivers by letting the city’s iconic black cabs sign up to participate in Uber. Few drivers admit to taking up the offer, but some black cabs have reportedly started to appear on Uber’s smartphone application.
Surface Transport maintains that Uber is operating legally even with the London regulations for taxis and Private Hire Vehicles. Their managing director Leon Daniels commented that since Uber’s taximeters are really smartphones carried by drivers, they “have no operational or physical connection with the vehicles.” This basically means the phones are not “taximeters,” but are basically used to transmit location information.
However, Uber has not got a final green light in London and still fights on elsewhere. TfL has asked a British court to make a final ruling on whether the Uber app is a taximeter. There are also a number of pending lawsuits in England tied to the issues.
Meanwhile, Uber’s attempt to expand service into Spain has hit roadblocks too. Cabbies in Madrid and Barcelona have taken to the streets to protest Uber’s presence as well. Similar protests have broken out elsewhere in Europe as taxi drivers assert Uber’s design does not comply with local laws or other arguments against the service.
Uber has faced a series of brawls in the U.S., too. Judges in Pittsburgh, Pa., ordered Uber and its competitor Lyft to halt operations in the city on Tuesday until they receive permission from the state’s Public Utility Commission. Last month, in New Orleans, a city council committee hearing related to Uber ran almost four hours but the committee decided to delay any decision. In California, the Public Utility Commission and state legislators are pursuing insurance requirements opposed by the rideshare service. So Uber can enjoy the green light it got, for the time being in London, while it fights challenges on roads elsewhere around the world.
By Dyanne Weiss