Uber – a taxi service with a fab app – was born in San Francisco in 2010. By 2014 it had spread to 290 cities and had 8 million users worldwide. It’s primarily a city service, you don’t find Ubers in rural Britain yet. Ubering it home may seem like a great addition to our life, but look close and you’ll see why it’s a mighty bad habit for London. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
|December fog, 2016, over Finsbury Park.|
You’ll always remember your first Uber. Mine was a rainy night journey from Shoreditch to East London to a place my work colleague claimed was the ultimate cocktail bar. Turns out he was right (it’s the Bonneville Tavern, E5). We arrived at 10.30pm for a night of Twinkles. By the time I wanted to get home it was past midnight, the traditional hour that public transport parks up for the night. Another Uber ride was offered… but when I wobbled into the street I noticed a bus stop right by the bar. And there was at least one night bus that could take me all the way to my Finsbury Park home, and it was due in just10 minutes (admittedly not Uber’s two). When the bus blazed up I paid with my oyster - as painless, and habit-forming, as paying with the Uber app.
There was no one else on the 253 for a couple of stops, bar the driver. Perhaps everyone else took an Uber home? They might have done as last April it was worked out that every week in London 60,000 people download Uber on to their phone. I’ve been slow to this party, but did put “Sign up to Uber” on my 2017 new year’s resolution list.
Except I’ve changed my mind, because super-convenient Uber – with at least 25,000 drivers and 1.8 million users here in London - is a big part of the London transport problem. Not least because Uber’s target for London was 46,000 drivers (2016, not yet met). How's that taking polluting vehicles off our roads? And what does it mean for traffic levels on the main roads which ought to be bus super highways, but are all too often traffic jams.
FACTS & FIGURES (2015-16)
Tube – 1.34 billion customers annually. Info.
Bus – 9,300 vehicles operating on 675 routes. Info.
Bus - More than 2 billion journeys made in London during 2015-16 Info.
|Black cab driver Ray Coggin is interviewed on Islington Faces, see link.|
I didn’t get it at first. When I saw the black cab drivers blocked the roads around Southwark tube and City Hall in protest against UberX, I thought the old boys in their big black diesel cabs (eye-wateringly expensive and rarely with a card machine) clearly didn’t like the competition new technology brings.
It wasn’t until I watched Episode 4 of Netflix’s The Crown, spellbound by the 1952 Great Smog of London and suddenly began to make the connections. It’s thought that 12,000 people died as a result of those three foggy days, many as a result of the damage done to their lungs by the air pollution (a thick yellow sulphoric-tasting smog).
The resulting Clean Air Act of 1956 is probably the birth of the modern environmental movement. But 60 + years on our lovely London is still polluted. The difference is that we can’t see what’s toxic.
In fact London’s air quality is so compromised by vehicle pollution from diesel fuel that its annual limit was broken just five days into the new year. That’s why there will be 9,500 early deaths in London during 2017. And a lot of suffering: think asthma, cancer and even increasing numbers of dementia and Alzheimers’ diagnosis.
|Hot air balloon murals at Finsbury Park tube station.|
I’ve watched my London-raised younger daughter – and her school friends – wheeze with asthma. I’ve seen my mum cope with lung cancer surgery. You’d think there’s nothing harder than trying to help someone breathe when they cannot. But there is, and it’s being brave enough to do something about the toxic air pollution that’s blighting London.
As more than 90 per cent of Londoners live within 400 metres of a bus stop it’s a shame that the London bus fleet (9,300 vehicles) is still mostly diesel-powered. Even if all London's buses were electric - it doesn’t totally resolve the pollution problem. Nor does having an electric car (and we know the win of free parking in central London and not having to the pay the Congestion charge etc).
Only walking and cycling are properly clean ways of getting around our dirty city.
Now when a journey seems too far, and taking a bus or tube too inconvenient, Uber maths takes over. Unfortunately when it comes to cleaning up London’s air quality Uber is a far bigger part of the transport problem than you’d think. Here’s why: not only does a handy Uber ride encourage us to take a car, it is also taking passengers off the bus and tube network – and away from Tfl which does at least have motivation to clean up London. If travel numbers go down then buses will get parked. Night services withdrawn. Permanently. Without an alternative guess what will happen to Uber fares if there’s no competition? (Answer: fares will go up). And London’s ability to crack down on vehicle pollution will lose direction.
Anything from San Francisco arrives with a buffer around it implying it’s clean, modern, right-on, hip. And yes it’s certainly meeting our lazy genes’ needs.
But if you want London’s air safe to breathe it’s not smart to be an Uber addict. 2017 is the year to step out of the car and say: Uber is not the best way to get wherever you’re going. It’s just another way of messing up London’s already toxic air.
- · Useful info about Uber (critical, but admiring) see: