An Open Letter to the Mayor on Congestion in London

January 20, 2016 / London

Dear Mr Johnson,

Over the last eighteen months you have argued that the growth in the private hire industry in London is causing congestion in the city—and that the solution is to cap the number of licences. These are the same arguments that were made in New York last summer, though a report into congestion (commissioned by Mayor de Blasio’s office and published last week) concluded that services like Uber have not made traffic in the city worse.

Of course every city is different but given your comments this morning we wanted to set out the publicly available data, as well as what Uber is doing to help cut congestion and pollution in London.

Traffic in London and Private Hire Vehicles

According to the most recent figures published by Transport for London (TfL), traffic actually fell by three per cent in Greater London between 2008 and 2014 (Source: TfL). That said, TfL does note that traffic speeds have deteriorated in the last two years. It attributes that decline to:

“A substantial increase in road and street works on the network, reflecting an increase in large-scale construction activity as London emerges from the recession, as well as the Roads Modernisation Programme, including new infrastructure to support the Mayor’s Cycling Vision” (Source: TfL).

In terms of the private hire sector, there are now 96,184 driver licenses and 75,031 vehicle licences, and growing. However, TfL concluded in a report published last month that “this does not appear to have fed through directly to significantly increased traffic levels” (Source: TfL). In addition, according to TfL private hire vehicles and taxis make up just 3.8 per cent of the total 2.6 million cars registered in Greater London.

Uber in London

There are now over 25,000 TfL licensed drivers who use the Uber app every month. However, on average just 4,000 are on the road at any one time. And as you can see from our trips data in the graph below, Uber’s busiest time is when the bars close and other forms of transport are more limited—not during the morning or evening rush hours.

Last month Uber cars accounted for 3.1 per cent of all vehicles in the congestion charging zone during charging hours (Source: Data derived from TfL’s congestion charging fact sheet).

Tackling Congestion and Pollution

All that said, we recognise that traffic in London is an issue and that everyone has their part to play in working to cut congestion. Increased cycling (including the cycle superhighways) and investment in public transport (for example Crossrail) are important parts of the solution. In addition, apps like Uber can help use today’s infrastructure more efficiently at no extra cost.

  • Carpooling: In December last year we launched uberPOOL in London. This service makes it quick and easy for people going to the same place at the same time to share their journey. By getting more people into fewer cars we can help cut congestion over time. In London, for example, 94 per cent of commuters driving into the city each day do so alone (Source: ONS). Reducing that number could make a meaningful difference to traffic in the capital.
    • uberPOOL is a proven model. In Los Angeles, for example, it now accounts for over 30 per cent of our trips in the city. In its first eight months there passengers did over five million POOL trips—cutting the number of miles driven across town by 7.9 million and carbon dioxide pollution by 1,400 metric tons. In its first month in London there have been over 200,000 uberPOOL trips.
  •  Alternatives to individual car ownership: In addition, because carpooling is cheaper, over time it can provide a credible alternative to car ownership. There is evidence from cities like San Francisco to suggest that many people are willing to give up on individual ownership because services like Uber are less hassle than looking for their car keys, their car, directions and a parking space at the other end.
  • Emissions: More than four in ten of all Uber trips in London are now made in a hybrid vehicle. These cars produce less than half the pollution of a standard TX4 black cab. And Uber is one of the very few private hire operators in London to have supported the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

This morning you raised the issue of private hire vehicles paying the congestion charge. We understand why people ask the question. Black cabs and private hire vehicles were granted an exemption on the basis that they “make an important contribution to London’s public transport system, enabling a wide variety of users to make short trips efficiently and providing a vital alternative to private car use.” (Source: TfL). As explained above Uber is not only a credible alternative to individual car ownership in cities like London but, over time, uberPOOL also makes it possible for people headed in the same direction to share their journey. We believe that services which help reduce private car use and increase carpooling over time should be encouraged not penalised.

Arguments Against a Licence Cap

Passengers value Uber because they can push a button and get an affordable ride within minutes at any time of day or night. That’s only possible if there are the drivers available to meet the demand, 24/7. And that demand is increasing fast—around 30,000 new people sign up to use Uber each week in London.

If there aren’t enough drivers at any given time then either prices or waiting times will increase, or both. Our pricing model is designed to deal with individual spikes in demand—for example when the pubs close or after a concert. But the only solution to longer term increases in demand is to increase the number of drivers.

A license cap would have the exact opposite effect, artificially constraining the supply of drivers. It would act like a traditional medallion system—making it harder to get a ride and pushing up prices. A cap would also discriminate against future drivers, who would be regulated out of the system. Nearly 30 per cent of drivers who use Uber come from constituencies where unemployment is over 10 per cent—so there is a real demand for this kind of work.

Some people ask, why not just have the existing drivers work longer hours? But the reason our partners value Uber is because the work is flexible, and they are in control. Drivers can choose not to work at all on any given day; to drive for a competitor; to drive just a few hours; or all day. On average, partners using the app in London drive 27 hours a week. It’s why the figures on the number of private hire cars you quote are misleading—because all those vehicles are never on the road at any one time. For example, only around 4,000 Uber cars are on the road in London simultaneously.

We are pleased that TfL has listened to Londoners and ditched last year’s ill thought out policies to impose compulsory five minute wait times and a ban on cars being shown in the Uber app. That’s a victory for common sense. But in light of your comments this morning about congestion we wanted to explain how Uber can help cut traffic and pollution in London.

Jo Bertram
Uber UK, Ireland and Nordics