How London can benefit from Uber

As Uber has lost its license to operate in London, here are some points about the potential it offers and how it could be improved further:

1. Provide mobility in places traditional public transport can’t work

2. Apply dynamic pricing in a progressive way

3. Provide driver facilities

These are described in a little more detail below Рthis is all written from an urban perspective, and excludes everything around business ethics, personal safety, insurance  etc which has had a lot of coverage in the mainstream media.

1. Provide mobility in places traditional public transport can’t work
Everyone in a city should have the right to mobility, however this is not always the case. The way the infrastructure systems of a city combine – primarily the way the street network is designed, and the way that land use and density are placed within this network – creates constraints on how easy it is to get around a city by certain modes of transport (this can be modelled and analysed). This places additional constraints on public transport – if an area of the city is low density and arranged around culs-de-sac, it is very difficult to get the required number of users within a walkable distance to support a privately run bus route.

Because Uber is on demand, it doesn’t need to be planned for anything other than the current journey. It is also the driver who covers the cost of travelling to the next job rather than a bus company. It is therefore an “infrastrutcure light” method for a city to provide mobility without public investment.

2. Apply dynamic pricing in a progressive way
Uber therefore starts to offer an alternative to private car ownership in places where traditional public transport finds it difficult to work. However, the next part of the problem is where people live in the city. Not everyone in a city has equal access to financial resource or community services. Traditional public transport solutions in a city often balance financial cost against time cost, so it may be cheap to get the bus but it will take an hour each way, and this creates further costs in other areas (extended childcare for example). And while Uber is cheaper than a black cab or mini cab, it is not as cheap as a bus.

One of the interesting parts is the dynamic pricing model which increases cost when demand is high and supply of cars low. In renewing Uber’s license, one option for TfL could be to require Uber to use its dynamic pricing model to subsidise the cost of journies from areas of the city where people have less ability to pay. This could be carried out mapping Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) data to a user’s home address. This could enable a lower-income demographic to be served in a way that is not possible through traditional public transport, i.e. reducing financial and time costs. Alternative risk stratification models could be applied, so that for instance, elderly people, or people at higher risk of social isolation can access the services they need to at a lower cost.

If this creates challenges from a commercial point, perhaps a compromise is to profile cities and identify the areas of city discussed in point 1, where the infrastructure creates areas of high car dependency. Where this infrastructure risk overlaps with demographic risk, then perhaps these areas could be subsidised.

3. Provide driver facilities
This issue doesn’t only relate to Uber, but to other delivery services that run on the gig economy model. Because drivers/riders are self-employed in a decentralised network, there is no office to return to. This means drivers/riders waiting in public spaces or quiet streets until a job begins. This has some positives in terms of increasing presence on streets and providing natural surveillance.

However, it also creates negatives. None of the facilities associated with a place of employment are available to the drivers. Things like places to wait when it is cold and wet, toilets, or in some cases rubbish bins for when a driver finishes their lunch. This creates negative street conditions, sometimes in places which are quite sensitive environments, such as schools. In addition it also places additional stress on other public services (such as libraries). A solution to the provision of these facilities needs to be reached, or perhaps more could be done to encourage drivers to wait in parts which are less sensitive to the negative outcomes.

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