This Is How Britain's Taxi Drivers Have Taken The Battle Against Uber Local
This week York became the latest English city to effectively ban Uber, and the traditional taxi drivers lobbying against the app don't want to stop there. But are authorities actually powerless to do anything?
Earlier this week, a local authority in the north of England voted not to renew Uber's licence, becoming the third city in the UK to take steps to stop the app from operating within its jurisdiction.
The City of York council's decision follows similar moves in London and Sheffield. The three authorities suspended or revoked Uber's licences for completely different reasons, but there is a theme: The battle between traditional taxi drivers and Uber is being waged in the country's town halls, and so far Uber is losing.
BuzzFeed News spoke to taxi drivers in York who say they are part of a grassroots anti-Uber movement being organised on social media across the country, and one that is becoming increasingly effective at lobbying local authorities.
They claim Uber is damaging their trade and the reputation of taxi drivers, and are calling for action on a national scale, particularly calling on the government to end what they say is a loophole in UK law that allows drivers to pick up a passenger from any location, regardless of the area in which they are licensed.
Saf Din, chairman of the local Hackney Carriages Association and a taxi driver of 23 years, was present at the York council meeting when councillors voted by a slim majority not to renew Uber's licence, a decision he says was greeted with resounding cheers.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News, he said York was being "flooded" at weekends by Uber drivers licensed outside the city, including as far away as London.
When BuzzFeed News visited York, one Uber driver confirmed they had travelled from Bradford, a town 41 miles away.
"We are concerned that there are people who are licensed to Transport for London who are operating in York and there are a number of drivers who are licensed to London who have not physically been in London," Din said.
"What we object to is the government allowing cross-bordering. ... There are so many Ubers flooding the streets that there are not enough jobs for them."
He said his concern is that as Uber expands into more cities in the UK, more drivers signed up to the app will cross borders and operate in towns and cities looking for work with "no idea of the cities they are actually working in".
Under British law this is legal: A licensed driver can work anywhere in the UK. According to Din, most councils see granting licenses as a "great revenue maker", and the end result means a surplus of drivers looking for the best jobs in high footfall areas.
Data collected by local drivers and shared with BuzzFeed News indicates that out of more than 200 Uber vehicles monitored since August, more than 90 came from Leeds and 60 from Bradford, while 30 had Transport for London licences. This renders the York Uber licensing ban essentially meaningless – Uber drivers with other licences can still work in the city.
A York council spokesperson told BuzzFeed News there is actually very little they can do to prevent Uber operating in the city, even with the ban, raising a question mark over whether the action of individual councils – caught in the crosshairs of rows between Uber drivers and taxi drivers – are essentially toothless.
Other taxi bodies in the UK, Transport for London, and even a cross-party committee of MPs have called for licensing rules to be standardised for all councils.
2017 has seen Uber suffer a string of global PR disasters following a huge data breach and accusations of drivers committing sexual offences and a corporate culture of sexism. In the UK it has fared little better.
In September Transport for London refused to renew Uber's licence in the capital on the grounds it considered the company "not fit and proper" due to "potential public safety and security implications". Uber is appealing the decision.
Last week, Sheffield council reinstated Uber's licence after a brief suspension following a dispute, saying it had received "satisfactory replies to the questions asked" about "the management of Uber". Uber previously told the BBC that the Sheffield decision was based on an "administrative error", and BuzzFeed News understands Uber does not believe it was the result of lobbying by taxi groups.
The decision taken by York council meanwhile was based on "concerns" about Uber's major data breach, and the number of complaints it had received about the company.
But as in York, tensions exist throughout the UK. For traditional taxi drivers and Uber drivers the fight is personal, and it can get heated.
In Brighton, BuzzFeed News has seen photographs of damaged Uber vehicles and slashed tires allegedly attacked by taxi drivers.
In another instance, a vehicle had "fuck you" sprayed on it. Uber told BuzzFeed News it had been made aware of a number of instances of "vandalism" and had reported them to authorities. A spokesperson said the company was taking steps to ensure drivers felt safe, including exploring obtaining secure parking.
One Brighton Uber driver, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they were "scared" of taxi drivers and described how they had had a long career as a traditional taxi driver before switching to Uber. They said they had since been blacklisted from rejoining any firms, and claimed to have received racist abuse and "harassment".
"Most of the things that have been done is hidden, and they [the companies] send them to harass us and block us on the road, shout at us in front of the customers. We've raised all these things with the council," they said.
"The local Hackney [carriage] drivers, they act like police, like this is their territory. They come and block you, and all of that.
"All of us are scared. I always call the customer and ask them please can you move away from there [a popular pick-up location] because we don't want to deal with them."
Responding to reports of its drivers being harassed, Uber said safety is of "paramount importance for everyone that uses the Uber app".
In York, Mike Palmer, a fifth-generation taxi driver and secretary of the York Private Hire Association, told BuzzFeed News Uber drivers essentially operated via an "abuse of the cross-border hiring law from top to bottom. ... It's systemic across the UK.
"The Bradford guys moved on to Leeds and the Leeds guys have come to York. It's a knock-on effect and York has stood strong."
Palmer said the "spirit and intent" of the cross-border law – to allow drivers to drop someone off outside their area and pick up another fare without having to drive all the way back to their home town or city – was to make life "easier, not harder", but was having the opposite effect.
Both Din and Palmer's taxi associations say they have been actively lobbying against Uber, gathering evidence of what they claim are safety and licensing breaches by the app's drivers that have been passed to officials. They say they've been in contact with other driver groups from Southampton to Sheffield, and from Wigan to Newcastle.
Next week councillors in Cambridge will vote whether to renew Uber's licence there, while a similar decision is due to be taken in Brighton next April, where authorities told BuzzFeed News they would take into account "a number of concerns" with Uber.
It is standard practice for licences to be reviewed and there is no suggestion they will be refused. But according to local Cambridge press, local taxi firms have already sent letters of objection to the council.
When asked to comment on claims councils were under pressure from traditional cab drivers, Uber said only that it believed choice and competition were good for consumers "as it raises service levels across the board".
"Passengers now expect to be able to book a ride at the touch of a button, pay without needing cash and track their car on their phone. Millions of people in the UK rely on Uber to get a reliable ride in a few minutes, and tens of thousands of licensed private hire drivers have signed up to use our app because it gives them more control," a spokesperson said.
"With Uber, drivers can decide if, when and where they drive and our system removes the favouritism and bias of human dispatchers sometimes seen in this industry. Uber now operates in more than 40 UK towns and cities and we want to continue bringing more choice to riders and drivers across the country.”
Uber said drivers generally follow demand, "so the only reason there would be cars from other areas in York is due to the huge rider demand in the city".
This free market philosophy is something the taxi drivers in York are unlikely to agree with anytime soon. Robin Sergeant, a member of the city's Hackney Carriages Association, summed up the prevailing feeling when asked how Uber had changed York. "In a small place like York," he said, "everybody knows everybody."
This post has been updated to reflect that BuzzFeed News understands Uber believes the decision taken by Sheffield council was not as a result of lobbying by taxi groups, and was due to an administrative error.