Uber in Durham: a great app-ortunity?

By Saskia Simonson

Uber (finally) arrived in Durham last week, adding to its already enormous network of private hire rides in the UK, totalling 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million customers. Well-established in large cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham, Durham is the smallest Uber city so far. Launching in a city with a population of just 65,000 would seem to be not only a low priority for this tech giant, but also a questionable economic strategy. Yet Uber believes that affordable and secure transportation should be available “for communities of all sizes, from small towns to megacities.” And as a student hub and tourist honeypot, Durham shouldn’t be lacking in demand, right?

I’m forever thankful for the cheap and reliable service

This service will strengthen the transport link between Durham and Newcastle, and, let’s face it, it would be great if getting out of the bubble every so often was a little easier. With popular routes such as the very short trip from the city centre to the train station costing no more than £6 as it is, it is hard to see the attraction of launching in such a city. However, Uber has often been described as the ‘Subway ride’, in reference to the fast-food chain famous for its ‘cheap’ and no more than a ‘footlong’ sandwiches. Yet, a few days after the launch, little to no rides were available and few drivers were in the Durham vicinity. Perhaps it will take time for both supply and demand to take off.

Uber’s arrival in Durham is an extension of its North East network, based in and around Newcastle. This roll-out may prove popular with Durham’s inhabitants and students in particular (I’m forever thankful for the cheap and reliable service), but it will certainly receive a backlash from local taxi and bus services. In opposition to Uber’s introduction to Newcastle in April 2015, local taxi firms created a petition to bring back legislation which requires drivers to pass a locality test. Similarly, in the capital, there have been concerns over drivers’ lack of knowledge when it comes to the streets of London. Unlike the infamous London Black Cabs test, ‘The Knowledge’, requiring drivers to memorise 320 routes through 25,000 streets before they get their licence, Uber drivers depend heavily on GPS-enabled smartphones. But as long as it gets us where we want to go, do we care?

Uber’s lax training process is just one of the many reasons why the company has come under scrutiny by transport regulators in recent years, and there are some areas which undoubtedly need reviewing. In September, Transport for London made the decision not to renew the company’s private hire licence in the capital due to its lack of corporate responsibility. The security and accountability of the firm have been questioned due to its continuing failure to report criminal offences, accusations of sexual assault, and dubious employee background checks. It couldn’t get much worse for Uber. But all these concerns have been exacerbated by the news that the man responsible for the terror attack in New York last week was a driver for the app. In addition, a tribunal ruling in October 2016 removed the ambiguity over the labelling of drivers as ‘self-employed’, instead finding drivers to be legally defined as employed workers and therefore entitled to paid holiday.

Leaving a party at 3am? Uber gets you home with just a touch of your finger

Uber is currently appealing both the tribunal and TfL’s decision. The newly appointed CEO Dara Khosrowshahi apologised in a letter for Uber’s mistakes and recognised necessary changes the firm must take. Meanwhile, he has encouraged the signing of a petition calling for an end to the ban. Supporters, including myself, are helping the petition to reach almost a million signatures. There has been no subsequent ban of the app’s operation in other cities in the UK. Both Manchester and Bristol transport regulators have said that Uber and its drivers comply with their licensing policy. A YouGov poll has shown that the majority of 18-24-year-olds are against the ban. Millennials across the capital and the rest of the UK hail the app for its affordability and security. Leaving a party at 3am? Uber is the go-to: the cheap way home with just a touch of your finger, which seems a lot safer than other forms of public transport or walking late at night.

TfL’s decision is nothing other than anti-innovation. Uber’s success derives from its genius embrace of the gig economy and smartphone technology. The ban is a setback for Uber and other tech firms founded on the same app philosophy, like Airbnb and Depop, who could also face future regulatory battles. I don’t want to conceive of a world without all these middlemen apps. And with the rise of autonomous drivers and increasing demands for flexible labour, it seems inevitable that such a firm, whether it is Uber or not, will take over the private hire industry. In the future, Uber could have the ability to calculate optimal routes and manage journeys in a way which would further decrease prices and journey times for customers, whilst at the same time minimising fuel costs and emissions. If regulation gets the modern makeover it needs and the safety concerns over such a business model can be addressed, the landscape of transport will change forever, and most likely for the better. Uber might just make it in Durham after all.

Photograph: Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta via Flickr and Creative Commons

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