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Uber ruling could sound 'death knell' for taxis say angry cabbies

Representatives of the London taxi industry say authorities are "kowtowing to Uber's money" as the e-hailing app heads for a legal showdown in the UK.

Uber has proved controversial with driver's of London's iconic black cabs. Rich Trenholm/CNET

Cabbies have reacted with disappointment to plans for Uber to be examined in court in the UK, which could sound the "death knell" for the taxi industry.

Transport for London, which licenses taxis and private hire vehicles in the UK capital, will ask the High Court to confirm its decision that e-hailing app Uber is operating within the rules. At issue is the question of whether an Uber driver's smartphone, which measures distance travelled and charges passengers accordingly, is technically a meter. In London, only taxis -- the city's famous black cabs -- are allowed a meter.

'You couldn't make it up'

With a demo by cabbies set to gridlock the streets in a couple of weeks, I spoke to representatives of the London taxi industry to find out what they think of TfL's plans.

"It simply beggared belief when TfL announced that GPS tracking devices used by private hire drivers complied with legislation over the taximeters used by London taxis," Alan McGrady of industry body the London Cab Drivers Club told CNET. "Now the body that is supposed to regulate us is taking its own decision to the High Court -- you simply couldn't make it up."

"There is no doubt that TfL is scurrying to the High Court in a bid to pass the buck," McGrady contends. "They realise that their original pronouncement was wrong, and are now fearful of legal repercussions."

Rich Pleeth, marketing manager of black cab app GetTaxi, says "While we appreciate that this decision has been referred to the High Court, we are disappointed that TfL have not simply done what's needed."

Pleeth explains that using an app to book a black taxi or private hire vehicle "is now so immediate it is essentially the same as hailing from the street -- it's just a modern version of waving your hand.

"Black taxis go through very strict regulation in order to get the privilege (of picking up passengers on the street) including five years of studying and experience to do the Knowledge, Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, and more. Private hire vehicles or minicabs do not, which is why they have to have a prior booking when picking up passengers.

"If they are found touting their business or behaving like a Hackney cab or taxi on the street, they would be prosecuted, so why are Uber simply allowed to use an app to get round that?"

"You wouldn't let someone start running trains without any checks," Pleeth points out, "just because they have an app and the regulatory rules haven't been updated to take that into account. So why do it to taxis? In theory we could open an app tomorrow and not abide by any rules. Which rules are there to be enforced? It's really a very simple issue to fix."

"Other cities around the globe have understood this and are ahead of the game," says Pleeth. "They are stating in their legal rulings: you can run a taxi business, you just need to have a proper taxi license."

'Kowtowing to Uber's money'

Industry body the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association is holding a demonstration on 11 June, calling for cabbies to block the streets in protest against the Uber situation. The LTDA's General Secretary Steve Mcnamara says "TfL's seeking of a judicial direction over the meter aspect of Uber's operation does not address more serious concerns over issues around Uber drivers accepting bookings in the car and not through a licensed operating centre or a licensed operator. This means Uber drivers will continue to operate in breach of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 and could be uninsured.

"TfL's kowtowing to Uber's money and influence is a serious concern to all Londoners," Mcnamara argues, "and (TfL's) suitability to remain as a regulator is seriously in question."

The LCDC's Alan McGrady has a bleak warning. "Make no mistake: if the decision is upheld, it will sound the death knell for one of London's most historic, cherished industries -- not to mention all the livelihoods that depend on that industry."

At the time of writing, Uber has not responded to a request for comment. In a statement earlier this week, Uber argued it is "bringing competition to an industry that hasn't evolved in years."