Young people in London love Uber, but some of the arguments against it are worth taking onboard
Yesterday, I calculated how many Uber journeys I have taken in the past year. The number makes me shiver. I have taken 90. Nine-zero Uber trips since the beginning of 2017. There were late night journeys to my ex-boyfriend's house, sometimes cancelled if I realised the booty call wasn't worth it. There were plenty of £2 fare-splits with my girl friends. There were naughty, lazy, late-for-work Ubers. There were after-a-late-shift at work Ubers, at 4am. And, mainly, in general, there were early morning Ubers, always delivering me home safely to my house without having to go through the stress of navigating dark streets in a drunken, vulnerable state as a woman.
And I'm not alone. In the US 16-34s make up almost two-thirds of Uber’s user base, and those figures seem to be reflected here in the UK. All my 20-something friends have the app, and I've never shared an Uber Pool with an older person. But, young people's love affair with Uber could be coming to a close at some point soon. Yesterday (22 September), it was announced that Uber has lost its licence to operate in London.
Already, an online petition called Save Your Uber in London has clocked up more than 600,000 signatures, positioning the big business almost as a charitable cause (although, in fairness, the language of the petition posits it as a business move). “This ban shows the world that London is far from being open and is closed to innovative companies, who bring choice to consumers and work opportunities to those who need them,” it reads. Young people are signing in their droves.
However, despite the fact that it is awful that 40,000 drivers may lose their jobs, the strongest arguments that lend themselves to Uber's cause, and that are particularly appealing to the generation of young, diverse, and “woke” Londoners who use the app, in my opinion revolve around racism and disability.
“I don't trust black cabs and yes racism is the issue with those,” says Sunny Singh, a London-based writer. “I've heard from my women of colour students, especially black and hijabi, that Uber gives them freedom to move about the city... In the past couple of years, I think pretty much every driver I have seen has been a person of colour or a migrant. The fact they are fellow migrants means I don't have to put up with racist banter or constant LBC discussions on ‘immigrant issues we can't talk about’ on their radio.”
With racially-motivated hate crimes still at a worrying level following a spate of terror attacks in the UK this year, the fears that her black and hijabi students have are is justified. Although black cabs aren't the only alternative to Uber in London, they are one of the most influential, and it's incredibly jarring that it's been their constant, aggressive London Assembly takeovers that seem to have influenced this decision by London's transport regulatory body, TfL.
Meanwhile the cabbies themselves are barely being challenged for their long history of racism; clearly only emphasised by their distaste for the immigrants who now drive the majority of people around London. It's exactly the type of nonsense that young black and brown Londoners would not want to deal with. It makes total sense that we, as a demographic growing in numbers, would turn to Uber over a black cab.
In contrast to Uber, most black cabbies are white, British and working class and Uber reportedly receives hundreds of complaints a month from its drivers about racist abuse from black cab drivers, including racist slurs. In one anecdote reported in the New York Times, a cab driver yelled to a female Uber driver: “You Muslim, you can’t even drive! Take off that scarf!” Black cabs often don't pick up black passengers, or make them pay upfront. Remember that scene from Kidulthood? Moony (Femi Oyeniran) is trying to get to his friends house and no black cabs will pick him up. “You know what? I got passed by five black cabs today,” he tells a cabby later. “Ain't my fault,” replies the driver. Moony counters back, “Just cos I'm black. Ain't it ironic? Black cab don't take black man.” He gets his revenge by not paying his fare.
While black cabs might have more room for wheelchairs, for those with certain disabilities and anxiety disorders, Uber has also been a lifeline. “I have a chronic pain condition called Fibromyalgia and getting around London is made so much easier for me,” says Danielle Vanier, a blogger who lives in Leytonstone. “It's cheap, quick and allows me to do my job well. I feel safer getting an Uber at night in comparison to walking home in the dark. I feel that Uber made London accessible to so many, especially those who feel anxious around travelling, the disabled and people of colour who have previously struggled to be picked up by black cabs.”
On the other side of the coin we have to look at the more negative positioning of Uber. My theory is that a lot of the time when young, working class and often PoC Londoners use the app, as well as it being to do with convenience and affordability for those of us who live in boroughs poorly served by public transport – plus the race and disablity issues we have with black cabs as mentioned above – it has a little to do with status and image.
It points less to necessity and more towards want. When you're rolling up to a party in a sweet BMW Uber (yeah, they exist), it looks better than traipsing in from your local night bus stop. And even Vogue says that having a 5* Uber rating amongst young people is a thing. Even so, any criticism of this really has to fall into the same category as when rich people look down on poorer people for having the best mobile phones, or buying new TVs – in the context of true wealth these are tiny luxuries.
A more serious negative about Uber that should be offputting for any young user, was highlighted by Dazed reader Marcella Ferri. “Since the day I've got attacked by a driver and Uber took no responsibility, I would say ‘so long it won't be missed’,” she tweeted. And there are plenty of other stories like hers out there. Personally, out of my 90 rides, the only dodgy journey I've taken is when one driver decided he wanted to make me his third wife (no word of a lie). This could be looked at as a funny story, but more generally it's frustrating that as women we take private transport to heighten our safety, and yet are still left vulnerable to sexually-motivated advances.
Uber has rightly been accused by the Metropolitan police of putting its reputation over public safety by not reporting sex attacks by drivers. Between February 2015 and 2017 there were 48 sex attacks committed by Uber drivers and they themselves are aware that their name has been tarnished by sexual assault claims. An Uber driver yesterday, told a colleague at Dazed: “All I'm hearing about in the media is speculation about the assaults not being reported... My personal feeling is that it's all political. Sadiq Khan says he hates Uber, but he was in my friends Uber the other day.”
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is taking a bit of a lashing when it comes to the Uber debate. But notwithstanding the sexual assaults, the more political arguments to do with customer safety and workers rights do also stand up. Uber have flaunted the rules, peacock-like and secure in their unrivalled popularity – allegedly putting people in danger in the process. In many ways they deserve to be dragged down a peg or two considering the abysmal wages they pay their workers (which in turn keeps our fares so low), and of course for not having a better system in place for those reporting sexual offences. In some ways it's would be a beautiful turn of events if Khan created his own TfL car-sharing app and got rid of Uber for good.
But ultimately, it's likely this whole fuss is likely to be resolved when Uber actually adheres to the rules after going through a lengthy appeals process. In the meanttime, it's certainly brought to the fore an issue that we cannot ignore: making our city safer for marginalised people, including people of colour, the disabled and women, must become a critical part of our legacy as Millenials. In 2018, even if Uber is kept on, I'd prefer not to be making 90 journeys.