Half a million sign petition supporting Uber in London

SAN FRANCISCO/LONDON (Reuters) – Half a million people have signed an online petition in under 24 hours backing Uber’s bid to stay on roads of London, showing the company is turning to its tried-and-tested tactic of asking customers for help when it locks horns with regulators.

London’s transport authorities stunned the powerful start-up on Friday when they deemed Uber unfit to run a taxi service for safety reasons and stripped it of its license from next week, although it can continue to operate while it appeals.

The regulator cited Uber’s failure to report serious criminal offices, conduct sufficient background checks on drivers and other safety issues, threatening the U.S. firm’s presence in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

Uber immediately emailed users in London and urged them to sign a petition that said the city authorities had “caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice”.

By 1200 GMT on Saturday, more than 515,000 people had signed in support of Uber.

It counted 3.5 million active users in London in the past three months. Even if many tourists are probably included in the total, the figure represents a potential political force of commuters who face long journeys between their home and offices and who use Uber as a cheaper alternative to other taxi firms.

Turning to users for help is one of the first steps in Uber’s playbook. In Jakarta, Budapest, Toronto and Portland it asked riders to sign petitions and built online tools to contact lawmakers to show their support.

Regulators have at least partly relented in Portland, Toronto and Jakarta, but Budapest remains a work in progress.

Uber now faces a showdown with London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, who this month said he wouldn’t let his teenage daughters use cabs like Uber on their own over fears for their safety.

Khan, a leading figure in the opposition Labour Party, said on Friday: “All private-hire operators in London need to play by the rules. The safety and security of Londoners must come first.”

As mayor, Khan is chairman of Transport for London, the regulator which stripped Uber of its license.

London’s decision is the first major challenge for new Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over from co-founder and ex-CEO Travis Kalanick. He was forced out after internal and external investigations into sexual harassment complaints, the thwarting of government inquiries and potential bribery.

NEW REGIME?

So far, Khosrowshahi has adopted a softer tone to the company’s crisis in London than his ousted predecessor did when faced with similar problems.

“Dear London: we (are) far from perfect” Khosrowshahi tweeted on Friday. But he noted that 40,000 drivers and millions of riders were dependent on the service. “Please work with us to make things right.”

The early signs of Khosrowshahi’s strategy suggest he is likely to follow earlier game plans, said Bradley Tusk, an Uber investor who advised on policy in New York City for the company.

“A lot of people rely on it, so there’s going to be a lot of fertile ground to mobilise,” Tusk said. “If real people are angry, it’s a lot harder for regulators.”

However, while Uber has been ready to turn to make campaigns personal in the past, Khosrowshahi may take a more moderate tone, by temperament and necessity.

In New York City, Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C., Uber hired political ad agencies and consultants and blasted political leaders for supporting measures that could eliminate jobs and worsen traffic.

During a stand-off in New York City in 2015, Uber named a mock feature on its app after the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, and used it to warn users that a regulatory proposal he backed could increase waits for rides.

Kalanick issued tweets criticizing opponents, including an all-capitalized message saying “WATCH THIS!” which linked to a video that suggested the mayor was obstructing social progress.

“They have a lot more scrutiny on them now,” said Reed Galen, a political consultant who worked with Uber on a campaign in Austin, Texas. “Going with the old idea of punching the local leader in the nose, that strategy doesn’t work when you’ve had the issues Uber has had.”

Khosrowshahi’s statements Friday were an “absolutely different take,” Galen said.

In an internal email seen by Reuters, Khosrowshahi said there was a “high cost” to having a bad reputation. He described it as “critical” that employees “act with integrity in everything we do, and learn how to be a better partner to every city we operate in.”

WAITING GAME

For a company known for the speed of its growth, Uber has shown patience when needed. It has long treated tussles with government as inevitable challenges, but ones it sees as temporary setbacks.

Uber has suspended its services for months in some markets, including Alaska and Texas. But it’s been able to return within a year or two in most cases by working out new rules or turning to higher authorities such as courts and state governments.

The efforts have a cost. Uber and rival Lyft Inc together spent more than $ 10 million on a failed ballot-box campaign in Austin and millions more on lobbying elsewhere in Texas.

Uber continues to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with city officials in many of the 600 plus cities in which it operates.

It suspended services in July in Finland but plans to re-enter Helsinki next year after the country passed a law de-regulating taxi services.

Whether Uber continues such tactics – for instance, seeking action from Britain’s parliament to supersede London authorities – is unclear. But Tusk said he would be surprised if Uber was not already in touch with members of parliament.

In a sign of early political opposition to London’s move, Greg Hands, the minister for London in Britain’s Conservative government, hit out at what he called a “blanket ban” on Uber.

“At the flick of a pen Sadiq Khan is threatening to put 40,000 people out of work and leave 3.5 million users of Uber stranded,” Hands tweeted late on Friday.

“Once again the actions of Labour leave ordinary working people (to) pay the price for it.”

Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in Frankfurt; Editing by Peter Henderson and Andrew Bolton

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'Unfit' Uber stripped of London license, CEO tweets 'pls work w/us'

LONDON (Reuters) – London deemed Uber unfit to run a taxi service on Friday and stripped it of its license to operate from the end of next week in a major blow to the U.S. firm and 3.5 million users in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

Graphic: Uber stripped of London license – tmsnrt.rs/2jQOqKD

In a break with the startup’s usual combative tone, Uber’s new Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi asked London to please work with the ride service. He told employees the company needed to act with integrity but that he did not believe Uber had done everything it was accused of in London.

Uber [UBER.UL], which has 40,000 drivers working in the capital, also said it would contest the decision.

The British capital’s transport regulator said the Silicon Valley technology giant’s approach and conduct was not fit and proper to hold a private vehicle hire license and it would not be renewed when it expires on Sept. 30.

Regulator Transport for London (TfL) said it would let Uber operate until the appeals process is exhausted, which could take months.

“Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications,” TfL said.

Specifically, TfL cited Uber’s approach to reporting serious criminal offences, background checks on drivers and software called Greyball that could be used to block regulators from gaining full access to the app.

Uber London General Manager Tom Elvidge responded that the mayor, who supported the decision, and regulators had “caved in” to people who want to restrict consumer choice. He added that Uber would “immediately challenge” the decision in court.

Khosrowshahi, brought in to steer the company after a string of scandals involving allegations of sexism and bullying, later appealed to the city on Twitter with a self-deprecating style.

“Dear London: we r far from perfect but we have 40k licensed drivers and 3.5mm Londoners depending on us. Pls work w/us to make things right,” Khosrowshahi wrote in a tweet.

He also acknowledged the company’s turmoil in a message to employees seen by Reuters. “It’s worth examining how we got here. The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation,” he said. “It really matters what people think of us,” he added, and “actions in one part of the world can have serious consequences in another.”

Many riders rallied to the company’s aid. Uber has turned to customers to help defend itself in other battles around the world, and an online petition in support of Uber had gathered more than 400,000 signatures by late evening in London.

A taxi drives past the London Eye in central London, Britain September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

‘SAFETY THREAT’

The loss of the San Francisco-based start-up’s license comes after a tumultuous few months that led to former CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick being forced out.

Uber, which is valued at about $ 70 billion and whose investors include Goldman Sachs, has faced protests around the world for shaking up long-established taxi markets.

The taxi app has also been forced to quit several countries, including Denmark and Hungary, and faced regulatory battles in multiple U.S. states and around the world.

Slideshow (9 Images)

The company’s UberX offers rides in London by individuals with licenses issued by TfL, often in drivers’ personal cars.

London’s traditional black cab drivers have attacked Uber, saying it has undercut safety rules and threatened their livelihoods. Uber has been criticized by unions and lawmakers too and been embroiled in legal battles over workers’ rights.

London police also complained in a letter in April that Uber was either not disclosing, or taking too long to report, serious crimes including sexual assaults and this put the public at risk.

Of the 154 allegations of rape or sexual assault made to police in London between February 2015 and February 2016 in which the suspect was a taxi driver, 32 concerned Uber, according to the capital’s police force.

Uber said on Friday its drivers passed the same rigorous checks as black cab drivers, it has always followed TfL’s rules on reporting serious incidents and it had a dedicated team that worked closely with London’s police.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labour politician who has criticized Uber in the past, said he backed the decision to reject its application for a new license.

“It would be wrong if TfL continued to license Uber if there is any way that this could pose a threat to Londoners’ safety and security,” he said.

Drivers of London’s black cabs, who have snarled up the city’s streets in protest at the app over the last few years, welcomed Friday’s decision.

“Their standards are not up to scratch,” said 71-year-old Walt Burrows, who has driven a black cab for 39 years. “The black cab is an iconic part of London. What you get with a black cab is a metered fare and you know you’re safe.”

Additional reporting by Eric Auchard, Michael Holden, Kylie MacLellan, James Davey, Elizabeth O’Leary. Elaine Hardcastle, Paresh Dave, and Heather Somerville; Editing by Peter Henderson, David Clarke and Diane Craft

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Uber faces big jump in fees if London license is renewed

LONDON (Reuters) – Uber will face a big jump in the fee it pays to operate in London to 2.9 million pounds if the ride hailing company is granted a new license by the city’s transport authority.

Transport for London said on Monday companies with more than 10,000 vehicles would pay 2.9 million pounds ($ 4 million) for a license under a new multi-tiered system coming into force this week.

In 2012, Uber paid less than 3,000 pounds for a five-year license to operate in London, which was extended in May by four months partly because TfL needed to finalize its new fees system.

Uber, which allows users to book journeys on their smartphones, has roughly 40,000 drivers in London. A decision on Uber’s license is due by the end of the month.

TfL’s General Manager of Taxi & Private Hire Helen Chapman said: “There has been a huge growth in the industry in recent years and it is only fair that the license fee reflects the costs of regulation and enforcement.”

“The changes to fees will help us fund additional compliance officers who do a crucial job cracking down on illegal and dangerous activity,” she said.

Uber has previously said it backed the principle of large firms paying more. The company declined to comment on Monday on the license fees.

The number of private hire drivers in London has almost doubled to more than 116,000 from 65,000 in 2013/14, prompting TfL’s decision to introduce higher fees for the bigger operators.

Uber has faced protests from drivers of London’s traditional black cabs and criticism over working conditions.

Several British lawmakers wrote a letter last week calling for Uber’s license not to be renewed, accusing it of not being a “fit and proper operator” and criticizing its record on safety and working rights.

The GMB union handed in a petition with 100,000 signatures on Monday to TfL, calling on Uber to improve workers’ rights or “get out of London” ahead of the license decision.

An Uber spokesman said the company was taking steps to improve security for its drivers and that they are paid more than the minimum wage, enjoying the flexibility offered by the app.

Reporting by Costas Pitas. Editing by Jane Merriman

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