The Courage to Be Citizen-Centric

Posted on October 09, 2017

A better road ahead?

Stephen Bediako

London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan needs to be recognised for his courage.

In his first year as mayor of London, Khan has already had to deal with growing inequality in the capital and the city’s housing crisis, nowhere more painfully reflected than in the Grenfell Tower fire, multiple terrorist attacks and the horror of young people riding around throwing acid on people.

It’s certain the Mayor has had plenty to address. And, now there is TFL’s decision – fully supported by the Mayor – to strip Uber, the car-service app, of its licence.

The ban has been criticised by the Prime Minister, amongst others. But this is not about politics. It’s not about closing London to innovation and it’s certainly not about putting people out of work.

What this decision means is simple – we now have leadership in London that has the courage to put citizens first, and the commitment to build a human-focused economy rather than a consumer-based one, as well as daring to question the accountability of large digital platforms.

Citizen Focused

At TSIP, where I'm Chair of the Board, our CEO is building on our impact measurement and innovation track record to pursue a portfolio of work that sets out to help social programmes – supported and/or delivered by foundations, corporates and the government – become more citizen-focused.

I see this issue, and the wider world, through three commons: firstly, a public commons that has seen relentless pressure to retract and get further away from society; second, a private commons that has seen relentless growth and the push for private consumption and private principles to deliver public good; and, thirdly, a citizen commons where all sense of what it means to be a citizen seems to have been lost, with the focus instead on consumption.

The situation with Uber is a great case study of how, at least in London and other cities around the world, our sense of citizenship and commitment to an effective system that works for the majority and the greater good has been slowly eroding. London is open, but it shouldn't be a free for all at its citizens’ expense. I want to focus on the issues that, for me, matter most.

Price

Everyone is complaining about price. For me, this is the ultimate sign of a consumption-centric citizenry rather than a citizen-centric one. The only way Uber affords such low prices is that it pays its drivers very little.

Drivers are also now wrapped in complex car rental deals, which means many of them often work long hours to repay the cost.

That said, there are many people driving independently who make a good living. But the only reason the price is competitive, compared to say black cabs, is that Uber drivers don't have to do ‘the Knowledge’ or drive a designated car. This places them at an unfair advantage with those drivers. We are enjoying that price point but at what cost?

Further, ask any driver and they will tell you that the 40,000 Uber cars on the road are too much. They flood the market and drive people down all the way to servicing pool rides when they would much prefer to be using Uber X or Uber XL rides. Uber control the economics not the free market.

Uber is also working on driverless cars, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the implications for its Uber drivers when this begins to mainstream – driverless cars are on the road in parts of the USA.

A company that doesn't fully employ the core part of its workforce, while also working towards replacing that workforce with autonomous cars – is this the kind of message we want to send to the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs? No. 

Safety

Safety has been challenged. This seems, however, an open and shut case. The Met Police, as well as others, highlighted serious incidents that have occurred in Uber cars, which have not been dealt with sufficiently.

But, the stats show that on average more incidents are occurring with Uber cars than black cabs or other regulated services. I recognise that many people have had no issue, and feel safe riding Uber. But there is a serious case to answer here, and to ignore it is to put our fellow citizens at risk. This is an area where recognising our need to be citizen centric rather than consumption centric is essential.

Giving Back

Another area is Uber's willingness to put back into the community or at least contribute to the system it leans on for its income. I'm a London cyclist and the roads are not great – avoiding pot holes is essential to your survival. I do wonder has Uber paid an appropriate amount of tax to address the damage that their additional 40,000 cars might be creating on the roads?

What I mean is businesses such as Uber like to benefit from the roads, infrastructure and laws that govern our wonderful cities, but don't seem willing to pay the full rate of taxes it should to access this ecosystem. Notwithstanding Uber’s tax status as a company, the fact that its drivers are supposedly self-employed when they effectively work full time for Uber - is simply a structural loophole to avoid tax.

Now to declare, I'm an entrepreneur and benefit from a similar status. But I'm an individual operating across a handful of small organisations and clients. Am I right that Uber is in 400 cities around the world? Unless I'm confused that sounds a lot like a global corporate entity the last I saw. 

The Ruse that is the Shared Economy.

Uber and other businesses have benefited from the narrative that they would ignite a shared economy and reduce the cars on our roads, the empty spaces in our homes and so on. In fact, they have done the opposite.

Certainly, Airbnb started by helping people to make use of their empty rooms, but it has quickly turned into an alternative to the rental market. The recent instigation of a 90-day rental limit has cooled that off (albeit potentially not far enough), and seems fair when you have a hotel industry that is competing in this time, while being fully regulated. 

In fact, the effect has had a positive impact on Airbnb – with new business models looking at experiences of London, and the organisation becoming involved in social projects more and more

Data indicates that in most cities around the world, Uber drivers drive in to central areas to find work, thus driving up the number of cars and concentration of pollution in our city centres. With taxi drivers in the decline, and Addison Lee diversifying more heavily into corporate and courier work, it just feels more like Uber has taken a share of the London driving economy rather than build a shared economy. In addition, its behaviour in allegedly hacking its rival in the USA, an incident now under FBI investigation, does not exemplify the hallmarks of a company that plays by the rules.

What next?

In reality, jobs will not be lost. In all likelihood, Uber will continue to operate in the capital, as it appeals TFL’s decision through the courts. During this period, their drivers will keep driving and their users keeping ubering.

The ultimate outcome is likely to be that Uber will clean up its act, take responsibility for ensuring its drivers’ background checks are done properly, and make other developments to its business model that make it more citizen friendly – for drivers, users and Londoners.

In doing so, I hope it will set a precedent for what can be achieved when a city’s leadership shows a little courage. 

The new CEO of Uber appears to be someone who will fight for Uber's position, while also being reflective about the mistakes it has made along the way. His track record also tells us that – like it or not – Uber is here to stay. I just hope that his values are as they appear, and that also this show of strength from London's top transport team results in a more citizen-centric outcome.

Green Shoots

The good news is that, elsewhere, we can see the green shoots of the citizen-centric revolution already being to show. Take the London Citizens’ Community Land Trust initiative, which could help the housing market, or Lyft a similar business to Uber that is not simply about profit, or interesting initiatives such as Catch 22's work with Barclays to get disadvantaged groups into work through access to Barclays corporate customers.

We must seize this opportunity to start to rebuild our values and our sense of citizenship. It’s right to welcome innovation, enterprise and competition that provides value at a good price point. But this must happen on a level playing field and it must not be to the detriment of our civic existence.