After London sent ripple’s of shock through Silicon Valley last year by denying Uber a renewal of its private hire vehicle license, the city’s transport regulator is doubling down on its scrutiny of the impact of app-based ride operators.
Today it’s published a policy statement setting out its intentions for adopting transport regulations to fit the fast-changing sector. And chief among its stated priorities is the safety and welfare of passengers and drivers.
“Safety will be a particular focus in new or novel areas where there is little existing evidence of what happens in practice,” TfL writes in its policy document. “Maintaining high standards of safety is the top priority and operators should clearly demonstrate this.
“That means setting out clear policies and action for the prevention and reporting of offences and for clear, named accountability at senior management level for safety, reporting and protection of personal data.”
TfL also flags up “broad support” in a recent consultation on private hire vehicle regulations for ensuring clear controls exist to “protect the safety of passengers and drivers”.
“To ensure that these services provide a safe, secure, accessible and sustainable contribution to London’s transport system, we will consider making use of provisions in the Transport Act 1985 and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 to set regulations,” it writes. “We will consult on proposals to make changes to private hire legislation as appropriate. Views will be sought from stakeholders, other taxi and private hire regulators and the public in 2018.”
It also asserts that operators “should ensure that drivers are treated fairly, ensure drivers have appropriate and reasonable working hours including appropriate breaks throughout their shift and have clear policies and procedures to keep drivers safe”.
Gig economy working conditions is an area of focus for the UK government too, following growing concern about safety and welfare in the sector. And earlier this month it announced a package of labor market reforms to respond to changes driven by the rise of app platforms — billing it as a major expansion of workers rights.
Concerns over public safety and a lack of corporate responsibility were also the key reasons TfL listed for denying Uber’s license renewal in September.
And while Uber is appealing that decision, and is continuing to operate in London during the appeals process, TfL’s policy statement suggests that whatever the eventual outcome in court its intent is to tighten regulation on the sector, with the aim of enforcing a more responsible approach from all service providers.
Though it also notes that any regulatory changes will be subject to a full public consultation.
Among TfL’s recent rule tweaks is a formal English language requirement for private hire vehicle drivers — a move that, incidentally, Uber opposed. But it’s considering lots more changes for regulating the sector, including an advanced driving test; PHV operator fleet insurance; private hire vehicle signage; and even mechanisms to allow passengers to choose who they share vehicles with.
It’s also conducting an impact assessment of removing London’s Congestion Charge exemption for private hire vehicles — which could clearly have a knock-on impact on fares — and says, depending on the outcome of that work, the measure could be put up for a public consultation too.
Expanding accessibility by requiring a minimum percentage of private hire vehicles to be wheelchair accessible is another change it’s looking at.
The policy statement also advocates for operators to share “travel pattern data” with TfL — “so that travel patterns in London and the overall impact of the services can be understood”. Which perhaps offers a route for service providers that have lots of data to build better relations with the regulator — by providing insights that city planners can benefit from. (We’ve asked Uber if it’s currently sharing any data with TfL and will update this article with any response.)
“The private hire market is unrecognisable from when current legislation was introduced,” said Helen Chapman, interim director of licensing, regulation and charging for TfL, in a statement. “The growth of ride-sharing and other advances mean that regulation has to be fit for the next decade and not the last.
“Our vision sets out clearly how we will manage these new developments that improve convenience for customers, while ensuring safety remains our top priority. The document also makes clear that any new developments in the sector have to fit with the objectives of the mayor’s Transport Strategy.”
Among London mayor Sadiq Khan’s wider transport objectives are reducing Londoner’s dependence on private cars generally, including in order to promote healthier mobility options such as cycling and walking, and also to make more efficient use of the city’s street space. (Which makes Uber’s emerging interest in bike-sharing look like a prudent diversification of its urban mobility offering.)
Another stated priority for the mayor is improving London’s air quality — and the strategy document specifically anticipates dedicating more areas in central London to being entirely “traffic free”. (Last year, for example, the mayor announced that the highly congested and polluted Oxford Street shopping district would transition to being traffic free — with a goal to complete this by the end of 2018.)
Asked whether the transport strategy requires a reduction in the overall number of private hire vehicles on London’s roads to deliver its objectives, a TfL spokesman would not provide a direct answer to our question — saying only that the aim is to “make sure that whatever developments happen in the industry they complement the goals in the mayor’s transport strategy”. But he also noted those goals do include a principle to “support mode shift away from car travel”.
He reiterated, too, that the regulator continues to support the idea of having a cap on the total number of private hire licenses — but said this would require primary legislation, adding that TfL continues to lobby government on that front. “To date they haven’t been minded to do so but that’s still our position,” he added.
For now there’s no firm timeline for TfL’s reworking of the private hire vehicle regulatory framework. The spokesman said only that it will be giving more details on specific timelines for consultations cited in the documents “in the coming months”.
Asked whether Uber’s behavior as a company has fed into formulating the policy document, the spokesman said no one ride-sharing company is driving its thinking here. “This is us at TfL saying what we think for the industry as a whole is required,” he told TechCrunch. “We want the regulation to be fit for the next decade, not the last decade.
“This is talking about the industry as a whole. We’ve seen it change a lot in the last few years — we’re expecting it to change a lot again in the next few years, so it’s making sure that we’re setting out our store.”
At the time of writing Uber had not responded to a request for its thoughts on TfL’s policy statement. Update: An Uber spokesman has now provided the following statement: “Over the last few years we’ve led the way with pioneering technology, such as GPS tracking of every trip, which raises standards and enhances safety. We’re now building on that with new features, like our driver hours limits, which we hope other operators will also introduce. Across the world we’re also partnering with cities, from helping to reduce private car ownership to using our data to assist urban planners through our new Movement tool. Our new leadership is changing the way we do business and we’ll be announcing a number of other changes and improvements over the coming weeks.”