TfL had sought legal clarity on whether tech firm’s app was a taximeter, which in London is exclusive right of black-cab drivers
Sunday, October 18, 2015
The taxi-booking service Uber has received a boost after the high court ruled that its app was legal in London. Had it lost the case, the company would have been forced to change its service to comply with rules that protect black-cab drivers.
The transport regulator Transport for London (TfL) had brought the case after pressure from the city’s black-cab and minicab drivers, who claimed that the Uber app was being used as a taximeter. The taximeter is a privilege afforded only to black-cab drivers in return for the extensive training they undergo to learn London’s streets.
But Lord Justice Ouseley ruled that Uber’s mobile service did not constitute a taximeter. “A taximeter, for the purposes of section 11 of the Private Hire Vehicles Act 1998 does not include a device that receives GPS signals in the course of a journey, and forwards GPS data to a server located outside of the vehicle, which server calculates a fare that is partially or wholly determined by reference to distance travelled and time taken and sends the fare information back to the device,” his written judgment said.
Ouseley said that while the smartphone using the driver’s app may be essential to enable the calculation of fares, that did not make it a device “for” calculating fares, which would breach the taximeter prohibition.
Uber described the ruling as a victory for common sense and took aim at plans by TfL to impose new regulations on the company. “Now the high court has ruled in favour of new technology, we hope Transport for London will think again on their bureaucratic proposals for apps like Uber,” said Jo Bertram, Uber’s regional general manager for UK, Ireland and the Nordics.
“Compulsory five-minute waits and banning ride-sharing would be bad for riders and drivers. These plans make no sense. That’s why 130,000 people have already signed our petition against these proposals. We hope TfL will listen to Londoners and let Uber keep London moving.”
About 1 million people have signed up to the service in London, where it has 18,000 drivers.
TfL said its view had always been that smartphones were not taximeters, but there was significant public interest in establishing legal certainty.
The TfL consultation on taxi apps includes the proposal of an interval of at least five minutes between booking an Uber journey and the driver picking up the passenger, in an attempt to stop instantaneous bookings.
TfL said it would continue with its consultation, which aims to address the rapid growth in the number of private-hire cars on the roads. The number of drivers of such cars in London – including Uber vehicles and minicabs – is set to reach 128,000 over the next two years, twice the figure in 2010, causing concern about congestion, illegal parking and air quality.
Leon Daniels, TfL’s managing director of surface transport, said: “With legal certainty established over taximeters, we will continue to work hard with all of our stakeholders to deliver taxi and private-hire services which meet the needs of modern London.
“Disruptive technology and new business models have radically changed the way that taxi and private-hire services operate and has widened customer choice. This is welcome. At the same time, as the regulator, we must ensure that regulatory requirements are met and are developed in a way that delivers the high standards customers deserve.”
Daniels said TfL would have enforced any judgment against Uber but added: “It felt very unlikely to me that the judgment could not have been complied with. Either way, Uber would still be operating tomorrow.”
He stressed TfL was “not against technology at all” and that the consultation proposals were put forward by all interested parties, from the public and trade, and many would be rejected. “There are no preconceptions, let’s see what London says.”
He said: “[Uber was subjected to] two of the biggest compliance checks I’ve ever mounted on poor record-keeping and insurance, and found virtually nothing. Uber has given us the fullest cooperation.”
Aside from the consultation, Daniels said TfL would be acting to improve standards for all private-hire drivers, with a tougher language and geographical test before the end of 2015, and would also clamp down on Uber drivers waiting in residential streets near Heathrow.
The chief executive of Addison Lee, the biggest minicab firm in London, said the ruling was disappointing. “This is a sad day for London,” Andy Boland said. “This judgment opens the door to a return to the bad old days of cabs charging what they like and the passenger not knowing what the fare is until it is too late.”
The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association said it had lodged an immediate appeal against the ruling in the supreme court. However, TfL said it would not appeal.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the LTDA, said it was a “ludicrous decision”, adding: “Does the Uber smartphone calculate the fare by a combination of time and distance? There can be only one answer, and any judgment that declares otherwise is flawed and wrong.”
Drivers of black cabs in a taxi rank outside Kings Cross St Pancras were unusually reluctant to voice any opinion on the ruling. One, who had been driving a taxi for 36 years and did not want to be named, said: “They should ban them, they’re illegal, that’s what I think of them.” Tapping on his meter, he added: “This is the only meter that should be allowed.”