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Disabled people and London’s Uber problem

Being disabled or chronically ill can be pretty exhausting. From the moment you wake up, there are battles to fight that non-disabled people don’t take into account. Will the energy it takes to have a shower mean you won’t have the capacity to prepare lunch later? Will the pain associated with getting out of bed make it impossible for you to operate your mobility equipment and move around? Will endlessly surfing the web to find somewhere accessible to meet a friend for coffee later take up so much energy that you won’t be in a position to go ahead with the meet-up?

Many disabled people use the Spoon Theory as a way to get non-disabled people to understand how having limited energy and high levels of pain, illness or distress mean that you have to compromise on everything. If I make a salad for tea, will the pain in my hands from chopping up ingredients make it too difficult to eat it? Everything has a pay-off, and we’re constantly calculating what we can and can’t do.

Disabled people and taxi rides

For this reason, a quick, easy and affordable way to get around is a godsend. Use an app, book your cab – even wheelchair accessible ones – and go to meet your date or get to work or attend a hospital appointment. When you’ve finished, use the same app to get another lift home.

Of course, we’re talking about Uber, which has lost its licence to operate in London. Transport for London (TfL) cited a lack of corporate responsibility on Uber’s part, concluding that it was not a ‘fit and proper’ company to operate a private car hire operation. Employment rights have been an issue, as the drivers are all self-employed and thus have no rights as employees of the company, and personal safety is an ongoing concern – women report not feeling safe in many types of public transport, Uber included, and this is exacerbated by the revelation that Uber has failed to report allegations of sexual assaults in its vehicles to the police.

Personal safety for women

Most people can relate to having felt threatened at one point or another. Women and gender non-conforming people in particular experience this frequently, and voluntarily getting into a car with a stranger and giving them your home address is not always the most comfortable experience.

Frankly, it can be terrifying.

We know that there have been enough legitimate cab drivers convicted of sexual assaults that simply making sure your taxi company is ‘licensed’ is insufficient as a means of protection; we often have to use our wits and intuition, too. Sometimes this is enough, sometimes it is not.

However, there’s something a bit more reassuring about getting into an Uber than a black cab, say, because the company has already told you your driver’s name, their car type and their registration number. You can screenshot this and send it to a friend if you’re concerned, whereas getting into a black cab can be an absolutely anonymous experience.

Yet even with this additional protection (and some minicab companies offer similar apps to Uber that provide the same kind of information to passengers before the car arrives), we are not guaranteed safety. We know this from the convictions and reports that have come from women in the past. Renewing Uber’s licence without some serious attention paid to personal safety would be absolutely a lax and frankly unforgiveable move on Transport for London’s part.

Black cab drivers’ objections to Uber

Black cabs are an iconic part of London’s reputation, and its drivers are renowned for being extremely knowledgeable about London, its streets and regions. They have to pass a test before they can get their licence that requires them to know every nook and cranny of the city before they are allowed to carry passengers, and their monopoly on London’s streets is threatened by companies like Uber. Uber drivers don’t take any geography tests, they rely on the app on their phone to get them from A to B.

Steve McNamara, General Secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, supports the move by TfL and London Mayor Sadiq Khan. He said, “Since it first came on to our streets Uber has broken the law, exploited its drivers and refused to take responsibility for the safety of passengers. This immoral company has no place on London’s streets”.

The resistance

However, Uber’s 40,000 drivers in London and many of its millions of customers are objecting to the ban. The company is in talks with Transport for London to regain its licence and, in the meantime, is allowed to operate until discussions are concluded one way or another.

This has led to mixed feelings and confusion for many of those who rely on the app but feel uncomfortable with the ethics of the company and its poor reputation for protecting its customers and staff. Uber is easy. It is fast. And it is often cheaper than its rivals. It can offer a degree of accessibility that many other minicabs or black cabs can’t, and sometimes we have to prioritise such things over wider issues.

Where employment rights stands when held up against disability rights, where personal safety bonuses stand against failings, are decisions that Transport for London and Sadiq Khan will have to face up to in the coming months. In the meantime, things roll on as normal.

Photo: Aaron Parecki/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women’s issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.