The UK arrival of a smartphone app that enables any vehicle owner to work as a taxi is driving London’s black cab and licensed drivers to block the streets in protest this week.
Taxi drivers have pledged to bring central London to a standstill on Wednesday in a dispute over claims that the industry is being deregulated, raising safety concerns for passengers getting in to unlicensed vehicles.
Legal action is being taken against Transport for London (TfL) but drivers are taking direct action, starting with Wednesday's protest. Thousands of cabs will block roads in the capital.
Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s proposed demonstrations, Garrett Emmerson, Transport for London's chief operating officer for surface transport, said: "A number of taxi drivers are set to cause pointless disruption for Londoners over a legal issue that is down to the courts to decide upon.
"TfL will work with the Metropolitan Police to do all we can to keep central London moving. However, given the scale of the likely disruption, we would advise drivers to avoid the area if at all possible. There are lots of other ways to get around, including the Tube or walking, and we're asking cyclists to take extra care given the large number of vehicles expected to be involved."
Steve Garelick of the GMB union's professional drivers branch, said: "GMB members consider that the introduction of unregulated taxi drivers, ending criminal records checks, ending vehicle checks and ending local licensing will be a hammer blow to the taxi and private hire industry. There must be an obligation to keep trade to the groups who are paying for legitimate licences in their district.
"We have campaigned on uninsured and unlicensed operators and drivers for many years and we cannot ignore the facts that at present many individuals are slipping through the net."
The row has erupted over the introduction of Uber, a smartphone app that allows members of the public to use their phone to book a private driver. It also allows customers to track the vehicle using the app’s live map. The customer can see the the driver’s name and photo before they arrive and an e-mail of the planned route is also sent.
Unions and groups representing taxi drivers are warning that the move is leading to unlicensed drivers being contacted via the new technology, with no checks on whether they are legitimate.
In London, it is illegal for private vehicles to operate a paid-for service using physical taxi meters, but the Californian-based developers of Uber get around this law because it is the customer’s own smartphone - not physically attached to the vehicle – that measures the distance travelled and the journey duration.
Uber makes its money from the 10-20 per cent commission on fares collected, the exact figure varying as journey costs rise during busy periods. Uber retains no physical office in the cities where it operates: all bookings are made directly with the local drivers.
Although a popular service in the USA, operating in over 100 cities, Uber has already attracted demonstrations and litigation in 10 cities.