Will the end of Uber in London make women more or less safe?



The decision by Transport for London (TfL) to revoke Uber’s licence was taken in part because of concerns over safety, which sounds sensible enough, although not to the 750,000 people (and counting) who have signed a petition to urge TfL to reconsider. The petition was created by Uber itself, which rather undermines the idea of a democratic process. In the past, it has been accused of exploiting its drivers, and its employees have complained of sexual harassment. You don’t take an Uber because it is the ethical choice; you take an Uber because it is convenient and cheap.

While many of the people who signed the petition will have done so for this reason, a startling number of women have done so precisely because they feel Uber is the safest transport option, particularly at night. You book a cab through the app and pay for it through your phone (no having to jump out at cashpoints). You have the driver’s details, and your journey is tracked by GPS. Young Londoners who don’t remember navigating the city at night in the days before Uber will have heard scare stories of black-cab drivers refusing to go south of the river, or minicabs being somehow “dodgy”.

“As a young woman in London, I use Uber regularly and have never felt unsafe. I can no longer afford to use taxis in London and will be more worried about my safety walking home at night,” wrote one on the petition site. “Safest way for a woman to get away from an unsafe environment … I would not want to go back to having to walk in the street on my own late at night in London, trying to hail a black cab or find a taxi office,” wrote another.

TfL does not think Uber is all that safe. In its statement, it said the company behind the app demonstrates “a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications”. These include the way it handles checks on drivers and its apparent lax approach to reporting serious crimes. TfL won’t comment further, even to clarify what it means by implying Uber have failed over driver checks, although it may be related to one of the companies Uber has used to carry out its checks.

TfL says Uber shows ‘a lack of corporate responsibility’. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Sarah Green, co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, says that it is “absolutely real” that many women will be concerned about the potential demise of Uber. “It makes sense that something as easy to use – and offering a door-to-door service – will give a lot of women a feeling that it improves their ability to get about.” But what is important, she says, is “how you ensure your operation is safe. If a company is going to operate, they have to play by the rules. They can’t turn a market like this into a free-for-all where there are no rules. They need to do the checks that are expected of anybody who gets a licence, and nobody [should be] allowed to not cooperate with a police investigation. We want women to have as much choice and feel safe – and be able to get about at a reasonable price – but it’s not at any price.”

Last month, the Sunday Times reported that Neil Billany, head of the Metropolitan police’s taxi and private hire unit, had warned in a letter to TfL that Uber was failing to report serious crimes, including six sexual assaults. In one case, the driver accused of one assault went on to assault a second woman less than four months later. “Had Uber notified police after the first offence, it would be right to assume the second would have been prevented,” Billany wrote.

The Daily Mail obtained figures from the Metropolitan police, which showed there were 48 alleged sexual attacks by Uber drivers in the year to February 2017, an increase of 50% on the previous year. However, the Met pointed out there may be flaws with the figures – the driver might have been incorrectly identified as working for Uber, or the journey in which an alleged assault took place may not have been booked through the app. Not all would have been charged. In 2015, the Metropolitan police and City of London police recorded 28 rapes and 108 sexual assaults by taxis and private hire drivers (not necessarily Uber drivers); it was the same number in 2014. Not all resulted in charges, especially where unlicensed drivers (operating illegally), who carry out the majority of assaults, were concerned – they are harder to trace. And not all assaults will have been reported. Of those who were charged in 2014 and 2015, 47 worked as private hire drivers and one was a taxi (or black cab) driver.

Is public transport safer? In the year to the end of March 2017, there were 1,996 recorded sexual offences across London’s public transport network, but the comparison is essentially meaningless – many millions more journeys are made by public transport and these figures wouldn’t include crimes that happen when victims are walking between a bus or tube stop and home.

There are apps that allow contacts to track you, and alert them if you didn’t arrive home safely – the modern version of texting your friends to tell them you have arrived home after a night out – but these wouldn’t prevent an attack. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust’s advice for women travelling, particularly at night, hasn’t changed in the wake of Uber’s appearance and looming disappearance. “We advise anyone using public transport to plan their journey before they go out, and to share information about their journey with someone they trust,” says Suky Bhaker, the trust’s head of policy and development. “If you’re using a taxi or minicab, check that a licence is displayed on the vehicle, and ask to see the driver’s licence, too, before you start your journey. Always trust your instincts – if you feel worried or threatened, ask the driver to stop in a busy area so you can get out.”

To which you might add some fairly dull but essential things such as supporting better, updated nationwide regulation of taxis and minicabs – the Labour MP Daniel Zeichner has introduced a private members’ bill on the subject.

One issue is that some councils have stringent regulations for their drivers, but that doesn’t stop drivers licensed in other areas, which don’t have the same standards, working there. A driver who is refused a licence in one area could be accepted in another.

Calling for better legislation certainly is not as exciting as a glossy app, or whipped-up social media reaction, but it may make your trip home safer – and would be a better use of online petitions.