22 December 2015

TfL’s proposals for London are not fit for a city of London’s standing


London is, as my MEP colleague Syed Kamall frequently says “The greatest city in the world”, yet if Transport for London (TfL)have their way, there is every chance that it will be quickly be seen as one of the more backward looking cities in the developed world. Despite the ongoing digital revolution, of which London is a tech centre, TfL have recently come up with some of the most bizarre proposals seen anywhere in the world on the sharing economy, and specifically ride sharing apps such as Uber, designed solely to make the lives of Londoners and tourists less convenient.

Their proposals on private hire regulations set a range of conditions, aimed at making the shared economy less competitive. They do almost everything possible to restrict these services without imposing a complete ban. The digital revolution, urban mobility, consumer choice and the fact we can now order cheaper taxis off mobile phones, in which the company can see your location through satellite technology all seem to be completely disregarded. TfL seems to be oblivious to how most Londoners lead their lives today and there can be no better example of how monopoly control is detrimental to consumers and innovation than the set of bizarre controls they seek to place on ride sharing apps.

For example, they propose that it should be made illegal for cars to be shown available for immediate hire. This is aimed at stopping those who order an Uber from seeing the cars on its app, a key innovation which finally brought ordering a taxi out of the dark ages, yet TfL want consumers to continue to have no idea how long they will have to wait before being picked up, with all the inconvenience and security worries that this brings, particularly at night. Uber’s approach is not only popular with consumers, it is safer and more convenient and should be embraced by traditional taxi companies, not regulated out of existence.

Anti-choice is a hallmark of the proposals. TfL suggests that London drivers should be legally required to work for one only operator at a time. Such a restriction will severely impact those who choose to work additionally in their spare time on a ride sharing app in addition to other operators. This penalises the most hard working and entrepreneurial in society and sends an awful message to those who want to get on by taking on additional work, especially in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the world.

Its only benefit is to protect the established private hire market and the high prices that they charge. In a free society, bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding who someone can or can’t work for, especially in a city of London’s global standing. The anti-choice theme continues throughout TfL’s proposals with the rule which would make all operators record a fixed destination at the time of booking. Whilst most who use the sharing economy already do this, not everyone wishes to set their destination. If a consumer wants to give their destination, it should be up to them as it should if they decide to change destination on route. Are we really going to be in the situation that a driver takes someone to a destination they don’t want to go to simply because unforeseen events meant they had to change their plans after they booked?

There is no new thinking or attempt to adapt in an innovative way to the sharing economy which, considering its overwhelming popularity by consumers, should be one of TfL’s key aims. When taking a ride in someone else’s car, regulators must ensure it is both safe and convenient. The truth is that most ride sharing apps have mechanisms which ensure both, and all cars and drivers using these services are already regulated, drivers have licences and cars have MOTs so both driver and car are safe to be on London’s roads. Consumers, frankly, will be baffled at having to wait five minutes before being picked up after ordering a ride home. This will damage drivers who work for ride-sharing companies, trying to earn money but are restricted because they will have to wait five minutes before they can begin each journey. This proposal does nothing for the consumer or the hardworking driver and only serves to erode some of the competitive advantages that ride sharing companies have.

A year ago, the sharing economy was still in its infancy and the disruption it caused has led to some reactionary responses, although never by consumers who love the freedom and flexibility that it brings. TfL may be searching for answers of how to deal with the problem, and there is no doubt that a problem exists. Traditional taxi companies are rendered uncompetitive because of the plethora of legislation that they have to adhere to, particularly with regards to the costs of licenses and they have a fair point that they are not competing on a level playing field with ride sharing apps because of it. But the answer is to deregulate for all and allow the consumer to choose, it is not to regulate even more and to introduce a series of laughable regulations which only serve to protect their own interests at the expense of consumers.

Ride sharing popularity is helping to create a powerful interest group of its own, particularly amongst the younger population, who can suddenly afford taxis. By restricting companies, TfL are going against the wishes of most of the population they are supposed to serve. We have already seen this in South Korea, which previously banned Uber outright. However pressure from young consumers forced it to change the rules to allow some Uber services to run again. TfL would be prudent to embrace the digital age before consumer power forces it to.

London has maintained itself as one of the world’s leading cities because it has successfully adapted to the times, embracing technologies whilst keeping its traditions. These proposals don’t do justice to a forward, modern thinking city which London self-evidently is. If these proposals go ahead, then this will show the regulatory body going beyond its remit of helping create a fair regulatory environment which protects safety and puts consumers first. It will show that TfL is working for it’s own interests and not for those of consumers. Perhaps, this will only hit home the next time you order a ride home from an app after a cold night out, only to find you will have to wait five minutes before starting the journey, despite the car itself being just around the corner. Although, under the proposed new rules you would not be able to see the location of the car anyway.

Daniel Dalton is a Member of the European Parliament.