I went to Nottingham in England earlier this year. References to Robin Hood and Maid Marion abound but one building caught my eye because it had a blue disc stuck on it. These blue discs (about one foot wide) are found all over the UK and commemorate a famous resident, battle or event. As a keen cultural historian I notice these things. This one stuck on a building next to Nottingham’s train station devoted itself to the very first skirmish of the Luddites, the artisan weavers who smashed their way against modernity and into the history books. That disc got me thinking about the ongoing skirmish between “Transportation Network Company” Uber and London’s black cabs—a bad tempered affair that’s gone truly global.
My experience with London taxis is probably familiar to most. How many times have I been standing on London’s Holborn waiting on dreich winter’s evening for a black cab to emerge and take me home? No wonder Uber’s price matching service upsets the status quo with its nifty way of matching paying customer to willing driver. Uber tells me how long my cab will be, who will be driving it and it works in way which means I don’t have to worry about cash in my wallet after an expensive evening out. The startling success of Uber is set clearly around the needs of the customer and shows how digital disruption can creep into the most mundane areas of our lives. So what’s the beef? Great customer service, what’s not to like?
Last week, London’s black cabs protested and brought London to a standstill with a slow moving procession around Whitehall and Parliament. The unrest isn’t contained to London with reports of similar strikes in Boston, Paris and Madrid—in fact wherever Uber opens up for business and disrupts the cabbing status quo. These protests are a manifestation of how mobile apps are challenging not just an entire industry but the legislative framework that surrounds an industry. The licensed cab drivers of London, Boston and Paris say it’s illegal because mobile apps act like a taxi meter, which private cars are not legally allowed to use. It seems that London emerged as the epicentre of the demonstrations against Uber, much in the same way Nottingham did for the Luddites.
London taxi regulator is the canary in the coal mine. London’s taxi drivers see a perceived failure by governments to protect them and regulate apps like Uber just as strictly as they do other metered car services. More competition (and cars for Holborn) is undoubtedly a good thing but what they are protesting about is s system of regulation that holds the same service to different regulatory standards. In my eyes, this is a sign how our legislative frameworks stumble around new technologies and ways of working. Uber is legal “for now.” The Mayor of London also added that there is currently "no breach of the law" in relation to mobile taxi app and added (which I really like) "We cannot magic the internet out of existence...we are now testing in the court whether or not (Uber) is illegal."
Thousands of drivers are angry that the regulator Transport for London (TfL) has determined that the app used by Uber drivers cannot be classified as a meter because it is not physically installed in the vehicle. That technical distinction counts for everything because TfL rules state that only licensed taxis can use a meter—a privilege that comes with strict regulatory hurdles like undergoing the knowledge. London’s licensed drivers feel that because Uber's app determines fare based on time and distance (and the occasional price surge) it functions like a de facto meter and should be regulated.
This fracas should sound a deafening klaxon to others. If you want to see an industry reach a crossroads in all its glory—and go the same way as retail, news or mobile—then this is it. Uber and its brethren are leveraging SMAC stack technologies and a Code Halo business models to challenge the status quo. London’s regulators need to respond. Uber is a master of PR however. I read it was extending its booking service to London's black cabs in exchange for a flat 5% commission the day after the strikes…
PS. My favourite blue disc commemorates Vincent van Gogh when he stayed in South London (Brixton). When I moved from the North of England to London I used to cycle past this disc and another dedicated to Charlie Chaplin on my way to work. It’s reminds me of the tale that Karl Marx, Freud and Hitler all lived on the same street in Vienna. Pretty sure they don’t do blue discs there.