A High Court judge has ruled that the smartphone app used by the Google-backed car service Uber to calculate fares does not breach laws forbidding minicabs from fitting taximeters in their vehicles.
The app uses GPS technology to record the car’s location and calculate the journey time to determine the passenger’s fare.
Minicabs in the capital are licensed by Transport for London whose lawyers advised the agency that the app was legal, paving the way for it to approve Uber’s application to operate.
London’s black cab drivers have repeatedly disputed the legal advice and the issue of Uber’s legality has led to a further deterioration in the relationship between TfL and the trade.
Many drivers were already unhappy at what they see as the regulator’s failure to clamp down on touts and provide sufficient ranks to allow them to compete with minicabs, and the decision to approve Uber’s service has renewed concerns that TfL is failing to “stand up” for the trade.
Last year, in an attempt to end the row, TfL said it would ask the High Court to rule on whether the use of apps such as Uber’s was legal.
However its application the case was delayed after the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association attempted to bring private prosecutions against individual Uber drivers in order to have the app banned.
Months of talks between TfL and the LTDA finally saw those prosecutions dropped, allowing the court to hear TfL’s application.
Earlier this month lawyers for the LTDA and Uber set out their respective arguments and today the Judge, Mr Justice Ouseley, ruled that the app was legal and didn’t breach the ban on minicabs using taximeters.
This, he said, was because “a taximeter…is not a device which receives GPS signals in the course of a journey, and forwards GPS data to a server located outside of the vehicle, which calculates a fare that is partially or wholly determined by reference to distance travelled and time taken, and sends the fare information back to the device.”
The Judge also backed TfL’s decision to seek the court’s ruling of action given the controversy surrounding its decision to approve Uber’s operations in London, saying “I am persuaded that the exceptional course of dealing with the issue by way of declaration is the right course in the circumstances.”
Today’s verdict will be a major disappointment to many cab drivers who fear their traditional service is being overtaken by foreign companies looking to “disrupt” the market and blur the distinction between a Taxi and a mini cab.
However the Uber app’s reprieve may prove short-lived as TfL is currently consulting on a number of possible changes to minicab regulations, including a proposal that passengers have to be advised of a fixed fare at the start of their journey.
If implemented this new rule would effectively ban the use of apps to determine fares. Other proposals up for consultation include introducing a five minute wait between app bookings and minicabs picking up the passenger and a man on the sharing of rides by strangers.
Responding to today’s ruling Leon Daniels, TfL’s Managing Director of Surface Transport, said: “With legal certainty established over taximeters, we will continue to work hard with all of our stakeholders to deliver taxi and private hire services which meet the needs of modern London.
“Disruptive technology and new business models have radically changed the way that taxi and private hire services operate and has widened customer choice. This is welcome.
“At the same time, as the regulator, we must ensure that regulatory requirements are met and are developed in a way that delivers the high standards customers deserve.
“As part of this, we are gauging public opinion on a range of potential changes to private hire regulations, including stricter rules on insurance and English language skills.
“We know that some ideas put forward for consultation are controversial, which is why we want as many people as possible to tell us what they think to help shape the future of private hire in London.”
Jo Bertram, Uber’s UK general manager, described the court’s decision as “great news for Londoners and a victory for common sense”.
She added: “Now the High Court has ruled in favour of new technology, we hope Transport for London will think again on their bureaucratic proposals for apps like Uber. Compulsory five-minute waits and banning ride-sharing would be bad for riders and drivers.
“These plans make no sense. That’s why 130,000 people have already signed our petition against these proposals. We hope TfL will listen to Londoners and let Uber keep London moving.”
Valerie Shawcross CBE AM, Chair of the London Assembly’s transport committee said: “This is a clear judgement, which should be accepted by all sides. However, regardless of the decision, our attention now turns to the future regulation of the industry.
“We now look forward to the results of TfL’s consultation on private hire regulations and hope that both industries can flourish. The interests and safety of passengers must be forefront in our minds.”
The LTDA has expressed unhappiness with the ruling which is says it plans to appeal.