Wired UKThis story originally appeared on WIRED UK.The ride-hailing service launched in London in June 2012, and quickly took over. It wasn’t the first such product in the capital—Hailo’s app for black cab drivers predated Uber—but it quickly became dominant, particularly with the launch of UberX, the cheaper rides that moved the app on from its original focus on luxury. At one point in 2016, 30,000 Londoners a day were installing the app on their phones, eschewing iconic black cabs in favor of a Toyota Prius summoned with a tap.
But now, Uber’s stranglehold on the city is loosening. On Monday, Transport for London, or TfL, announced its decision not to renew the company’s operating license in the city, after granting it a short extension which expired this week. Uber will appeal, meaning it can continue to operate for now, but its future in London is far from certain. And what’s bad for Uber will likely be good for pretenders to its throne.At coworking spaces from Mayfair to Shoreditch, newcomers are taking chunks out of Uber’s market share, undercutting it on price, and promising a better deal for drivers. Today, there are several alternative ride-hailing apps operating in the city—Bolt, Hailo, Kapten, ViaVan, Wheely, Xoox, and more. Mourad has set up a website—driverapplondon.co.uk—to help drivers navigate the muddle. London’s ride-hailing scene is fragmenting—both geographically and demographically. But are the new players really offering a ride-hailing revolution, or just more of the same?
For the tens of thousands of new drivers who signed up to the platform in the early years, Uber seemed to offer everything—in exchange for a hefty 25 percent commission. But the drivers were always aware that their livelihoods dangled by a thin thread—their pay and working conditions depending on the whims of a multinational company with a reputation for bad behavior. “Drivers were under a lot of pressure,” Mourad says. “If anything went wrong, if there was a complaint from a rider or something going wrong with a ride, we were at risk of being deactivated from the platform.”
Things started to change in September 2017. First, on September 7, Estonian startup Taxify started operating in London—gaining a route into the city by purchasing an existing company that already had a private hire license. But TfL quickly shut that down, resulting in an embarrassing retreat for Taxify. Then a few weeks later, the regulator shocked the industry by rejecting Uber’s application to renew its license to operate in London, kicking off a saga that has been rumbling on ever since—and which will now be settled in the courts.
Meanwhile, other operators have been arriving in the city. ViaVan launched in April 2018, and has picked up more than half a million users in the capital with its focus on shared rides. Rather than working at cross-purposes with TfL, ViaVan—a joint-venture between Via and Mercedes–Benz Vans—seeks to act as a complement to public transport. “Our goal in coming to London was to offer something that was different and more sustainable and in line with the city’s goals,” says Chris Snyder, ViaVan’s CEO, when we meet at the company’s offices near Angel.
On the ground floor, a number of drivers are sitting in an airy waiting room, ready to be "onboarded"—the term that ride-hailing companies use for registering new drivers on their app. Finding a suitable office is one of the first big challenges faced by new arrivals into London. They need somewhere that they can initiate and train drivers, which means finding an office that’s not in the congestion charge zone, with ample parking nearby, but still in an area that drivers are likely to pass through during a working day.
As a result, most of them have congregated in a small area: ViaVan in Angel, Bolt in Shoreditch, the soon-to-launch Ola in Liverpool Street, and Kapten near Old Street. Wheely is based in well-to-do Mayfair, in line with its focus on the higher end of the market.