London proposes tougher rules for app-based taxi firms like Uber

LONDON (REUTERS) - London's transport chiefs announced plans on Wednesday (Sept 30) to tighten control on private hire vehicles (PHV), a move that could hit app-based ride-hailing firms such as Uber.

Drivers of the city's famous black cabs have argued that Uber bypasses local licensing and safety laws and amounts to unfair competition. They have staged a number of high-profile protests, including go-slow demonstrations that have brought traffic in the centre of London to a standstill.

A protest earlier this month at London's City Hall led to a scuffle that resulted in arrests for assault and aggravated trespass and the suspension of a meeting where Mayor Boris Johnson was answering questions.

"In recent years the private hire industry has grown exponentially and technology has also developed rapidly," said Mr Garrett Emmerson from Transport for London, which has issued the proposals that will now go out for a 12-week consultation.

Under the plans, firms would have to provide a booking confirmation at least five minutes before a journey starts and let allow cabs to be booked up to seven days in advance.

They could not show vehicles for immediate hire via an app and must specify the fare prior to the booking being accepted.

"These bureaucratic new rules will not improve your ride," said Uber's regional manager for UK, Ireland and the Nordics Jo Bertram.

"They're designed to address the concerns of black cab drivers, who feel under pressure from increased competition. But the answer is to reduce the onerous regulations cabbies face today, not increase them for everyone else."

An online petition set up by Uber against the proposals has already attracted 86,000 signatures.

Unlike black cabs, which can be flagged down in the street and use a meter to calculate fares, San-Francisco based Uber, backed by heavyweight investors including Goldman Sachs and Google, allows customers to book and pay for a taxi using an app on their smartphones. It also provides a second app for drivers to calculate the cost of a journey.

Uber has provoked a backlash in cities across the globe, with the mayor of Rio de Janeiro saying on Tuesday (Sept 29) he would ban its use in the city while a taxi drivers protest jammed the centre of Bratislava on Monday.

The European Commission has launched a study of Uber to address a number of legal disputes including German and Spanish court bans and a new French law on taxis.

The RMT union, which represents some London black cab drivers, welcomed the proposals.

"This is a step in the right direction towards tightening up controls on the PHV sector and apps like Uber but the union recognises we need to continue to fight for full implementation and a rigorous system of monitoring and control to make this work," RMT general secretary Mick Cash said.

Other private hire companies also backed the move.

"We and others have been saying for some time that new app-based entrants have been playing fast and loose with the law and public safety," said Mr Mike Galvin, head of regulatory affairs for taxi firm Addison Lee.