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London Officials Say Uber Is Unfit To Operate In City


Uber may not be able to operate in London for much longer. The top transportation authority there says it will not renew Uber's license. The ride-hailing service is appealing that decision. And in the meantime, Uber can keep operating. London's move is being applauded by taxi drivers, as you might expect, but many Uber customers are not so happy. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: In London today, people are being forced to envision life without Uber cars. It's a bleak vision for Yurr-Ann Chin and Svenya Tishmyer (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Taxis are so expensive in London, so I usually rely on Uber at the moments during the night to get home from bars or clubs because the Tube doesn't go at night.

ARNOLD: Of course people could try to grab one of those stately looking black cabs. Arun Sundararajan is a business professor at NYU who was born in the U.K.

ARUN SUNDARARAJAN: Of all the cities in the world, London's taxi service is perhaps the most iconic - you know, black cabs driving around - and most closely tied to the identity of the city.

ARNOLD: And because of that, there could be some politics going on here to protect the taxi drivers. And Sundararajan says that the move could also be a part of a more general backlash against big tech companies from abroad.

SUNDARARAJAN: The fact that it is a non-European or non-British platform that is dominating what used to be a locally provided service.

ARNOLD: OK, but there is still a reason that Uber is popular in London.

JACOB KIRKEGAARD: Anybody who has taken a black cab in London knows that this is a pricey service that is not always available where you need it.

ARNOLD: That's Jacob Kirkegaard, an economist with the Peterson Institute. He says London's subway, or Tube system, is crowded.

KIRKEGAARD: London is a city whose infrastructure greatly benefits from the, in many ways, complimentary service of a company like Uber.

ARNOLD: But he says a series of glaringly bad missteps by the company has left it vulnerable. Perhaps the worst, the ride-hailing service angered regulators around the world with its so-called Greyball program which deceived officials by showing them fake Uber cars when they looked at the app.

KIRKEGAARD: There is a federal criminal investigation here in the United States that they used this Greyball software to basically trick local regulators so that they couldn't identify individual drivers, so they couldn't check the identity of these drivers. That is a serious charge.

ARNOLD: Traditional taxi companies have pointed to sexual assault complaints against Uber drivers to raise safety concerns, and the London regulators faulted the company's approach to reporting, quote, "serious criminal offenses." Uber says it complies with the same background checks that the cab drivers undergo in London and that it works closely with police. In the end, Kirkegaard thinks that London might force some changes on Uber, but he would be surprised if the city actually bans Uber cars.

KIRKEGAARD: The U.K. is voting for Brexit, and you know, they really want to send the signal, we're still open for business. Banning a cheap source of transportation within the city is a step in the other direction.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, today more than 300,000 people have already signed an online petition asking the mayor to reverse the decision to ban Uber in London. Chris Arnold, NPR News.


NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.