How do you solve a problem like Uber? London’s black cabs have tried appealing to public sympathy (good luck with that one), legal action (nope) and striking (2014’s summer strike actually increased Uber sign-ups 850%), but Uber continues to gobble up the taxi market at an alarming rate.
The San Francisco startup says it has over 15,000 drivers in London, only three years after it launched there. That’s fast catching up with the number of black cabs, which at 22,500 has only risen 1.5% in the last two years.
Increasingly, cabbies are trying to play Uber at its own game. From today, 6,000 Hackney cabs will offer a 30% discount on off-peak fares (weekdays from 10am-4pm, 8pm-11pm and 2am-6am) on journeys booked in advance or on demand through Uber’s Israeli rival, Gett.
‘Some taxi apps charge more when they’re busy,’ said Remo Gerber, Gett’s UK chief executive, subtly referring to Uber’s peak surcharges. ‘We think this is unfair, so we make fares cheaper when we’re quieter.’
Some people might say that actually amounts to exactly the same thing, but that’s by the by.
Bringing black cabs into the 21st century isn’t exactly new – Gett and other apps like Hailo have been doing this for some time – but this is clearly a further step (should that be drive?) down the right road.
Uber’s success derives from three advantages over old-fashioned cabs: the superior convenience of an on-demand hailing service; cheaper prices due to more efficient journey planning (less time is ‘wasted’ without carrying fares); and cost savings from not having to conform to the same strict regulations.
By putting black cabs ‘on the grid’, apps like Gett allow them to counteract the first two advantages. Whether that will be enough to stop the rot depends on how wholeheartedly cabbies adopt this technology.
The fact is that Uber has changed the taxi industry for ever by popularising hailing apps. The old ‘stick your hand out and hope they’ve seen you’ model just can’t compete in the long term to be the way most Londoners get their rides (tourists may be a different story).
Black cabs could use their numbers and brand to get in on the digital act and challenge Uber, but they’ll have to do it quickly. Uber is fast approaching critical mass, where it becomes so popular and ubiquitous that it will be hard to catch, even if and when the government decides to slap the same regulatory burdens on Uber drivers as on licensed cabbies.