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The days when the iconic Hackney carriage ruled the road are well and truly over. Last week, the Indian ride-hailing firm Ola launched in the capital, expanding its operations from other major cities including Birmingham and Bristol. The app company is the latest insurgent in an increasingly digital and competitive taxi cab market and the growing battle for our journeys is great news for passengers. 

In recent years, Uber has revolutionised the taxi service. In contrast to black cabs, users love the affordable on-demand rides that can be tracked from the moment of booking to the end of the journey. This tracking, especially late at night, has been a focal point of praise. Parents are able to trace their children’s journeys so they know they have arrived at their destinations. 

The rating system allows drivers and passengers alike to incorporate accountability into the user experience on both ends. Fares and routes are recorded as well as the details of drivers and passengers should an issue arise. It is down to all this that 3.5 million users in London alone ‘Uber it’ and their cars have become an everyday feature of urban life. 

There are around 45,000 Uber drivers in the capital, more than double the 21,000 black cab drivers. Overall, there are around 126,000 taxis in the city, so Uber already makes up over a third of the supply. This is reflective of how great an impact its made. The app hasn’t just been loved by passengers. It provides flexible working hours, with drivers in control of when and for how long they work. Many of them use Uber to supplement their primary incomes. 

For these reasons and others, Uber has become incredibly popular. Like many of the behemoths that have emerged in recent years, however, it has also courted considerable controversy. Multiple local authorities in the UK have flirted with sanctions on the service including in London, York, and Sheffield. This scepticism has not been unique to the UK and Uber has been subject to outright bans in Frankfurt, Barcelona, and Budapest. 

It was under the mayoralty of the now Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that Uber was first granted permission to operate in London. The low barrier to entry that services like Uber provide have always vexed trade unions. The notion that one could simply skip the lengthy training process of The Knowledge and use an app to navigate the roads using a straightforward GPS has substantially undermined the position of black cabbies. 

“They don’t deserve to be on the road, they haven’t learned The Knowledge,” one black cab driver told The Telegraph back in November last year. “They’ve got one eye on the phone, one eye on their sat nav, the other eye – if they’ve got another one – on the road.” One can appreciate the frustration, but if drivers who haven’t completed months of training can still deliver people to their destinations, attempts to restrict services based on standards that only aid one provider and do nothing for the consumer are wrong. 

Market disruptors regularly come under fire from incumbents that fiercely lobby regulators to maintain their position. London’s current mayor Sadiq Khan has been accused of using his powers in this area to stifle the innovation that has made the lives of Londoners better. Ideological opposition to the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ and pressure from unions, it is argued, have made delivering the service that consumers crave more difficult.

The issue of safety has been a recurring theme, and there have been some genuine concerns around some of Uber’s licensing practices. Transport for London (TfL) has claimed that “weak systems and processes” have allowed drivers without insurance to operate as well as drivers without authorisation to make new accounts and pick up unsuspecting passengers. Uber itself has admitted to shortcomings in the past and has claimed to have made significant strides to improve passenger security. 

While we ought to celebrate the successes of products and services that many people use and enjoy, we cannot be blind to their shortcomings. It should ultimately be up to passengers, however, who they choose to ride with. This is why the expansion of the market, with new competitors, is cause for optimism. If one doesn’t like black cabs, or Uber, or any other alternative, one does not have to use them. No company or brand should be sacred. 

Consumers deserve freedom of choice and, fortunately, the success of Uber has led the way for new entrants into the market to build on their model. Other popular apps include Lyft, Hailo (now FREE NOW), and now Ola. As much as black cabs can lose out to a more competitive Uber, these new services will keep the original insurgent on its toes. 

The role of City Hall and other authorities must be to encourage insurgents and not favour incumbents, whether they are black cabs or the new dominant tech companies. Whoever becomes Mayor of London this year must ensure that Londoners are safe, but they mustn’t take a retrograde approach to regulation which favours inefficiency over innovation. The emergence of Ola and other new competitors will thrive if they work for passengers, and regulators should facilitate giving them that chance.

Joseph Silke is Research and Communications Assistant at Bright Blue.