Uber has won the right to continue operating in London, according to a report by The New York Times. The ride-hailing company was contesting a decision made by Transport for London in November last year. The regulator believed that Uber wasn’t “fit and proper” and had shown “a pattern of failures” since entering the city in May 2012. Uber disagreed with the assessment, though, and filed an appeal last December. A four-day hearing, which began on September 14th, has led to today’s decision by deputy chief magistrate Tan Ikram. As the Guardian reports, he concluded that Uber “no longer poses a risk to public safety…despite historical failings.”
Uber is now free to negotiate with Transport for London on the length of its new licence and any associated conditions.
The App Drivers and Couriers Union (ACDU) has “cautiously” welcomed the decision, but believes London mayor Sadiq Khan should take further action and limit the number of licensed drivers on the platform. “Such reductions, achieved through attrition, are necessary to ensure Uber can comfortably meet its compliance obligations including worker rights whilst giving TfL the breathing space necessary so that it can comfortably meet its responsibilities to ensure that Uber drivers and the travelling public are protected,” the union said in a press release.
The two organisations have been at loggerheads since September 2017. Transport for London refused to reissue Uber’s licence — which had initially run for five years — because it wasn’t happy with some of the company’s actions and procedures. The regulator didn’t like how Uber reported criminal offences and conducted driver checks, for instance. It was also unimpressed with the company’s use of ‘Greyball’ software which helped drivers evade the authorities by tagging known officials and serving them ghost cars. Uber argued that it had never used Greyball software in the UK, however, and filed an appeal one month later.
Uber was allowed to operate as usual while the legal challenge was settled. In June 2018, the court ruled that Uber could continue operating on a 15-month licence, but only if it met Tranport for London’s conditions. These included a bi-yearly assurance report, appointing three non-executive directors to its board, and giving at least one month’s notice for any major changes to its business model. Then, in September 2019, Transport for London decided to renew Uber’s licence — but only for two months. The regulator accepted that Uber had made some improvements to its culture and governance, but wanted to review “additional material” before committing to a longer licence.
It was later revealed that “issued” had emerged late in the company’s application process. Transport for London noted these in November 2019, when it decided not to renew the company’s licence. “A key issue identified was that a change to Uber’s systems allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts,” the regulator explained. “This allowed them to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver, which occurred in at least 14,000 trips – putting passenger safety and security at risk.” Transport for London did accept that Uber had taken steps to close these loopholes. But it also wasn’t convinced that the company could prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.
Uber has taken further steps to address the regulators concerns. In April, for instance, the company introduced random driver checks via facial recognition. It’s also introduced ‘Programme Zero,’ an initiative designed to ensure that the company never breaks any of Transport for London’s conditions.
According to Verdict, Uber admitted that “mistakes were made” during the hearing. It also argued that it was a different business to the one from 2017. Tim Ward QC, the representative for Uber, argued that only 24 drivers had exploited the photo-related glitch. He said the problem was “not endemic or widespread,” and that all of the issues highlighted by the regulator had been resolved. The regulator’s argument though, was based on the company’s entire history. Marie Dimitriou, the representative for Transport for London, reportedly said in court: “You will have to look at the entire picture and ask yourself: is that good enough, or does that pattern of breaches reveal a problem, namely, an ongoing risk to passengers?”
The judge sided with Uber. The decision reflects how far the company has come since Dara Khosrowshahi took on the role of chief executive in August 2017. Critics won’t be pleased, but many London passengers will be.