An Uber Technologies Inc. logo sits on a smartphone display in this arranged photograph as London taxis sit parked beyond in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Uber Says Moves Appease London Regulator Over License Ban

(Bloomberg) -- Uber Technologies Inc. said its moves to protect passengers and drivers have appeased the capital’s transport regulator, reducing one of the hurdles threatening to continue a ban on the car service in its biggest market outside the U.S.

Transport for London’s position has “moved to one of effective neutrality,” Uber lawyer Thomas de la Mare said Monday at the start of the highly anticipated hearing in the U.K. capital. Judge Emma Arbuthnot said she may make a ruling Tuesday in the case, which stems from TfL’s decision in September that Uber wasn’t "fit and proper" to operate and refused to extend its permit.

“We accept the onus is on us,” de la Mare said. “We accept that TfL’s decision was the right decision at the time.”

The transport agency had 25 concerns, most of which involved safety and regulatory issues. The Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, which represents about 12,000 traditional black-cab drivers, and the GMB trade union, are also opposing the car service’s appeal on grounds that it’s worked to avoid regulations that cover other forms of transport and doesn’t offer job security. Uber is allowed to operate during the appeal process.

Uber Conduct

The issues with Uber remain relevant but they are "no longer live matters of concern to TfL. They have either been addressed by changes introduced by" Uber "or they relate to an historic course of conduct that has now been abandoned," lawyers for TfL said. However, the judge should take into account Uber’s historic conduct.

More than 3.6 million people regularly use the Uber app in London. The ban sent shockwaves through a business that was already scrambling to head off multiple lawsuits and probes around the world.

Since then, Uber has attempted to allay the safety and governance concerns the regulator had in a series of public moves including new limits on the hours drivers can operate and board-level appointments. It has created 24-hour telephone support hotlines, promised better contact with police and pledged to report any “serious incidents” that occur during a passenger’s journey, and now shares drivers’ license details with riders.

Skepticism

TfL’s neutral stance includes skepticism over whether the changes will work in practice, de la Mare said.

TfL’s move to ban Uber sent a clear message to technology companies that government agencies are becoming more aggressive in balancing the interests of the so-called gig economy’s new business models against workers’ rights and more traditional operators.

As of March 2018, Uber drivers represented 38 percent of the 114,054 active private hire drivers in London, TfL said in documents prepared for the trial.

"TfL recognizes these commitments to embed change within" Uber, the regulator said in court documents. "However, embedding these new norms, and transforming the corporate culture of Uber London, will take time. It will also take time to repair TfL’s impression” of Uber as an license holder.

“Uber London has tended to say whatever it thought was most helpful in the circumstances," Martin Chamberlain, TfL’s lawyer, suggested while questioning Tom Elvidge, Uber’s general manager in the U.K.

After the previous U.K. general manager, Jo Bertram, left the company, "it was clear that the change would give Uber London the best possible chance of moving forward," Elvidge said.

Over to You

"The decision if Uber is now a fit and proper person is for you," the regulator’s lawyer told JudgeArbuthnot in court Monday. "If you conclude a license should be granted, we invite you to make it a short license and subject to very strict conditions."

Arbuthnot will have to rule whether Uber has done enough to earn a license. If she does, she also has the power to decide the length of any permit. At a hearing in April, lawyers for Uber suggested that an 18-month license would perhaps be more appropriate than a five-year one usually given.

"I would have thought an 18-month license is too long," she said at the start of the hearing.

Uber has introduced measures since September including a policy forcing drivers to take a six-hour break after a 10-hour shift, a round-the-clock helpline for drivers and passengers as well as reporting serious incidents directly to London police.

The company “has taken concerted steps to improve its business practices and critically examine its culture after listening very carefully to and seeking to act upon TfL’s concerns," its lawyers said in court documents. "There is now sufficient tangible evidence of the kind of necessary, sincere and effective change required to satisfy the court of its fitness and propriety to hold" a London license.

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