Emails between London’s transport regulator, Transport for London (TfL), and Uber, show the two had an occasionally stormy relationship long before the ride-hailing firm lost its licence.
One email, released under the Freedom of Information Act, shows a key moment when Uber really angered TfL.
Uber’s then CEO Travis Kalanick had visited London in 2014 and announced Uber’s carpooling service UberPOOL — but he hadn’t bothered to talk to anyone from TfL about it.
We first saw this email via The Financial Times, and have also obtained a copy.
Leon Daniels, the former managing director of surface transport, wrote to Uber’s northern European chief Jo Bertram in October 2014:
“[I] need to say that whilst your CEO’s visit to London was well known the fact that it took place without any invitation to meet with the Commissioner has not been received well here.
“It is clear the opportunity to announce a ride-share product was carefully timed to coincide with his visit. This is the second time an initiative has been a surprise to us. You tell us you welcome TfL’s progressive and pro-customer attitude. Meanwhile our international colleagues tell us they are persistently wrongfooted by your behaviour which in turn sets the tone for subsequent reaction.”
Daniels complained that Uber only told TfL about new initiatives after it made public announcements, and the press made queries.
The emails show two very different organisations at loggerheads: the process-driven TfL, more used to dealing with black taxis and smaller minicab organisations; and Uber, a San Francisco startup unused to asking for permission.
UberPOOL, which lets strangers share a ride home, continued to be a sticking point in 2015.
Uber told TfL in April 2015 that it wanted to launch UberPOOL later that year. But as the year drew to a close, TfL said in September: “[We] do not expect you to launch UberPOOL until we are satisfied it will be operated lawfully.”
That triggered a frantic response from Uber’s Jo Bertram, who warned that UberPOOL was due to launch within a few weeks. Bertram added there had been “ample time” for TfL to raise its concerns. But TfL held firm.
Eventually, UberPOOL launched at the end of November.
Other emails show TfL had a problem with Uber’s language
In another email, TfL’s Leon Daniels berates Uber for implying it doesn’t accept fares booked in advance.
Uber wrote in a tweet to a customer that they couldn’t “pre-book” a taxi to take them to the airport the following morning. Specifically, the firm wrote: “No pre-booking.”
This sounds unimportant, but it’s a highly contentious detail about the way Uber operates versus black taxis.
Uber drivers hold private hire vehicle (PHV) licences, meaning they can’t cruise around the streets waiting for fares on the street like black taxis do. When you book a ride through the Uber app, you are technically “pre-booking” a cab, even if it’s seconds in advance. When Uber implied it doesn’t do pre-booking, that suggests its drivers are “plying for hire” like taxis, something they are not allowed to do.
Daniels wrote to Bertram:
“I am getting a ton of tweets, insulting as usual, about this message from your customer service to a client. If you are monitoring it then you’ll know the words “no prebooking” are being exploited. I wonder if you agree that might be helpful to use different terminology?”
“Since “pre-booking” is the rationale behind [private hire vehicles] it really is unwise to deny you do it in this way. I accept that the phrase used is the one by the customer but is now being used to complain that we are allowing something we shouldn’t. I am not really very impressed having to try and explain long-term prebooking vs short term prebooking.”
It seems like a niggle, but it indicates TfL’s frustrations with even minor infractions from Uber. It also shows that TfL listened to pressure from black taxi drivers.
According to the Financial Times, TfL considered revoking Uber’s licence much earlier, while Boris Johnson was still Mayor of London.
But, as The Daily Mail reported earlier this year, the government was pushing back in favour of Uber.
In September 2015, a TfL advisor asked David Cameron’s special advisor, Daniel Korski, to meet and discuss contactless payments on public transport.
But Korski took issue with TfL’s ongoing consultation around the private hire cab trade.
He replied curtly: “To be honest, as TfL does the kind of insane and luddite things you’re consulting on for private hire vehicles I can’t really see much point in discussing innovation and technology with you.”
The advisor admitted that not everything was “a good idea”, but said the black taxi trade would be “livid” if some of the suggestions had not been in the consultation.
Several months later, Uber took TfL to court over its new requirement for private hire drivers to pass an English test — and lost.
Uber has said it plans to appeal losing its licence in court, and its new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi apologised for the company’s mistakes in an open letter last week.