The news that Uber – the world’s largest taxi app – is to be stripped of its licence by Transport for London (TfL) on September 30 has caused consternation and shock in the capital. In The Pool office, in central London, women were divided. “We’ve been talking about the problems surrounding Uber for months – the poor pay and conditions for drivers, the endemic sexism, the lax approach to reporting assaults. Good on TfL for standing up to them,” said one woman. “But, but, but, but – how will I get anywhere?” said lots of others.
There were jokes about the sad fact that home-delivered McDonald’s has only recently become available because of UberEATS and one woman expressed horror at having to take the night bus – but more than one of us made the same serious point: “I felt safe in an Uber.”
Last month, The Sunday Times reported that Uber had been accused by the Metropolitan police, which looks after the Greater London area, of failing to report sexual assaults by its drivers and keeping those drivers accused on its books regardless. We covered the story on The Pool. It was a talking point – and yet… Most of the women I know, if they were to be honest, would say that they had a tendency to ignore those reports – and the evidence of Uber’s disregard for their wellbeing – and instead focus on the fact that sitting in a comfortable car, using an app in which your journey is tracked, felt like a safer option that walking or taking the bus or a black cab (if that was possible or affordable).
It’s possible, though, that the sense of safety had been misplaced. When TfL announced this morning that it was to remove Uber’s licence, its top reason for doing so was the taxi app’s 'approach to reporting serious criminal offences'
This is a particularly pertinent issue for women. I live with my husband, but he spends a couple of weeks of each month away. During that time, I am effectively a woman living alone and I usually socialise in and around my own area, north-east London. Getting home from a friend’s house or the pub, I rely on Uber, instead of walking through dark parks or down narrow lanes. A journey is only six quid or so and it means I don’t have to clutch keys between my fingers, primed for an attack. I don’t have to smile politely when I encounter street harassment for fear of pissing the wrong person off. I don’t have to worry.
Many other women on Twitter have spoken about the sense of safety they felt in an Uber, with trans writer Shon Faye saying she always felt more comfortable in an Uber and journalist Charlie Cuff noting the racism she encountered in black cabs.
It’s possible, though, that the sense of safety had been misplaced. When TfL announced this morning that it was to remove Uber’s licence, its top reason for doing so was the taxi app’s “approach to reporting serious criminal offences”. We’ve been told that it’s not safe – by the media and by TfL – plenty of times, and we’ve been told that it’s not ethical (as well as ignoring safety, Uber displayed a cruelly arrogant disregard for workers’ rights).
London mayor Sadiq Khan supports TfL’s decision to revoke Uber’s licence – which has 40,000 drivers in London and is used by about 3.5 million customers – but Uber has 21 days to appeal the decision and can continue to operate until the end of any appeal process, TfL said. And so we are left wondering whether this Uber ban will come to pass. An ideal situation would see Uber work quickly to address the safety, security and ethical issues that it has thus far ignored – after all, this ban isn’t about TfL’s vindictiveness, this is about Uber operating without considering the best interests of their riders and drivers. It might seem unlikely – given what we know about Uber’s approach to profit – but maybe, by making such a bold stand, TfL can bring about a situation where women actually are safe, as well as feeling safe, when they hop in an Uber. Or, failing that, perhaps we end up in a better position, where a new taxi app that actually really truly has women's safety at its heart can flourish.