Common Sense: Uber Tries a New Route to Keep On Going in London: Diplomacy
Despite the conciliatory words, Uber isn’t lying down entirely. It is appealing the ruling, a move that will allow it to keep operating after its license formally expires at the end of this week. It is still fighting in court over the status of its drivers and their lack of benefits. In a show of force, it mobilized its considerable user base — Uber says it has 3.5 million riders and 40,000 drivers in London — with a Change.org petition, “Save Your Uber in London.” As of this week the petition had been signed by more than 800,000 people.
Uber and Mr. Khosrowshahi declined to comment.
And as anxieties mount in London over the British withdrawal from the European Union, even Mr. Khosrowshahi’s reference to the city as a “great global city” was a not-so-subtle reminder that, without Uber, it wouldn’t be.
It’s unclear how much of the change at the top of Uber has filtered down to the rank and file. Mr. Khan pointedly contrasted Mr. Khosrowshahi’s approach to that of officials in Uber’s London operation, whom he described as arrogant. “I just wish Uber U.K. had acted in a similar manner in the recent past,” Mr. Khan told The Evening Standard. “This arrogance where big companies that have lots of customers don’t have to play by the rules is one that I think is wrong.”
Sam Knight, a journalist based in London whose 2016 article in The Guardian, “How Uber Conquered London,” explored the charged political and social landscape of transportation in the British capital, told me this week that the old Uber was on display when he did his interviews at the company’s headquarters in London’s financial district, known as the City.
“London Uber is basically staffed by white people from Goldman Sachs in their 30s,” he said. “They’re slick City people executing a business plan that originated in San Francisco. They totally drank the Travis Kool-Aid. They just saw the backlash against Uber as a natural part of disruption and couldn’t see that there might be some legitimate objections.”
That’s not to say that the transport regulators’ stated objections — under the rubric that Uber isn’t “fit and proper” to hold a transport license — are entirely what the dispute is about.
As Uber has pointed out, the regulators’ specific concerns, about failing to report potentially criminal acts to the police and whether its medical and background checks on drivers were adequate, could have been resolved relatively easily. The company insists that it complies with all London regulations but is open to negotiations and revisions.
As in many cities, Uber has disrupted powerful interests in London, starting with the drivers of black cabs, who trace their lineage to 1634, and their influential Licensed Taxi Drivers Association. In June 2014, thousands of London cabbies stopped working and blocked traffic to protest Uber’s incursions, bringing central London to a standstill. Mr. Khan has been courting organized labor in what is widely viewed as an effort to displace Jeremy Corbyn as head of the Labour Party. (Mr. Khan spoke at the annual Labour Party conference this week, just days after the Uber decision.)
Many people in London — and in the rest of Europe — view giant American technology companies, and Uber in particular, with intense suspicion and resentment. Even Mr. Khosrowshahi’s apology and conciliatory comments drew scathing retorts on Twitter. (“They’re just going to pout, lie, and try to find ways to cheat the system like they always do,” was one.)
Mr. Khosrowshahi has “been wise to approach this as both a political and business issue,” Mr. Mahaney said. “As head of Expedia, Dara had to deal with many disagreements with local governments over taxes and other policies, especially San Francisco and New York City. They all got resolved, generally without any public, aggressive confrontations.”
And Uber has prominent defenders in London. Britain’s minister for London, Greg Hands, criticized Mr. Khan, saying that banning Uber would “cause massive inconvenience to millions of Londoners, showing that the mayor is closed to business and innovation.”
While acknowledging that Uber’s background checks and cooperation with the police could be better, The Evening Standard called the decision to ban the company “arbitrary,” and came to the defense of “40,000 drivers in the capital who have come to rely on the work that Uber provides,” many of them “poor and immigrants.”
“I don’t have that much sympathy for the black cab fleet,” Mr. Knight said. “You respect their craft, and they’re a skilled group of people. But you pay through the nose. They’re nearly all white males. They gripe all the time about immigration. The only reason I’d take one is if I was in the middle of London at rush hour and someone else was paying.”
In any event, banning Uber in London is unlikely to return the city to what some consider the more genteel status quo that existed before the company’s arrival. Although Uber is currently the only ride-hailing operation licensed there, its rival Lyft is eager to expand internationally and enter the London market. Lyft officials have met with transport regulators in the past year.
“I’d say the genie is out of the bottle,” Mr. Mahaney said. “The regulators may be able to tilt the playing field a little, but ride-sharing is a fact of life and I’d say a benefit of life in all major cities.”
Uber recognizes the importance of what’s at stake: Mr. Kalanick has called London the “Champions League” of transportation. “This must be one of their most prestigious markets, and we’re a bulwark for Europe, which is much more hostile towards Uber than we are,” Mr. Knight said.
Both he and Mr. Mahaney predicted that Uber’s large dose of humility would help. In the end, “to be world class, London needs ride-sharing,” Mr. Knight said. “Uber will survive, clean up its act, and Khan will declare victory.”
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