For London, Uber is not yet over. But last week’s decision by the capital’s transport authority to reject the global ride-hailing firm’s application to renew its licence has put its long-term prospects in doubt.
Two years ago, Uber promised to work with Transport for London (TfL) to become a better service provider, and can list many positive steps taken. Yet TfL still had doubts about its security processes – doubts confirmed by revelations that 14,000 journeys were undertaken by drivers who had faked their ID on the app. Now, to the delight of the vocal black-cab lobby, London has once more told Uber that is not fit to hold a private hire licence.
An appeals process virtually guarantees it at least another year: Uber can go on operating in the capital until every legal avenue is exhausted. And it may well be granted a licence again if it demonstrates to a judge that it has made changes. Competitors, meanwhile, are circling, eager to capture a share of the lucrative London market.
For the 3.5 million Londoners who have downloaded Uber’s app and grown used to its convenience, how do the alternative apps shape up? Here the Observer test-drives Uber’s key rivals in the capital.
Founded in Estonia in 2013 (and formerly known as Taxify) this company has spread across Europe and beyond. It launched in the UK this year (after a failed attempt in 2017), operating within greater London and at airports around the capital.
USP It looks much the same as Uber, but claims to charge drivers less commission, offset all carbon emissions and still offer lower fares. Having signed up 30,000 drivers in London, it says the average waiting time for a cab is now 4.5 minutes. With 1.5 million app downloads, it appears to be emerging as a direct and serious rival to Uber.
Quick test drive Quotes were cheaper – especially with generous introductory offers – in a smaller fixed range, and as quick to arrive as Uber. But will it remain sustainable? The driver was on his first trip after switching from Uber, looking to hedge his bets.
Launched in London in May, this French firm now has about 20,000 drivers and 900,000 customers on its app.
USP It claims to have the lowest prices, with fares fixed when a booking is confirmed. Kapten also has about 1,000 electric cars in its fleet, sometimes at a discount in central London, although usually with a longer wait for the nearest one available.
Quick test drive Prices jumped at peak times, despite claims of “more sensitive” and transparent surge pricing – and the base fare for a trip also seemed to vary significantly. A booked “electric” car also turned out be a hybrid Prius, a fairly standard choice across Uber and the rest. And when bad traffic and bad reception forced a cancellation, conflicting messages in the app warned variously of a £5 fee and no charge.
A joint venture set up by Via – which licenses its tech for car-pooling services in the US – and Mercedes-Benz Vans, it has operated an Uber-style service in central London, since April 2018, with 1.2 million customers and more than 20,000 drivers. (It’s also available in Milton Keynes.)
USP The app encourages car-pooling, with the default option being a shared ride – slightly cheaper than a private cab even if no other passengers are along. It claims to have a better algorithm that means customers will not have to endure such big detours as they do on Uber’s platform.
Quick test drive Several attempts at booking saw the first vehicle offered disappear, although ViaVan lets you cancel for free if the initial wait is long. Prices were not much cheaper than Uber, even with an offer to share the ride. The actual ViaVan, when it arrived, was, again, a Prius.
After a brief monitoring of the apps and several trips in central London Bolt seemed to emerge as a ready and serious rival to Uber. Kapten didn’t quite live up to its promises, and ViaVan would be impressive if its stated ambition to drive smarter car-pooling took off and eased congestion, but that won’t happen until it achieves critical mass. For now Uberpool quotes look cheaper.
The promiscuous traveller could grab promotional deals on these other apps now, especially Bolt, but – as with early Uber – it’s hard to see these fares being sustainable. Meanwhile, drivers’ option to work on multiple platforms gives them more leverage and choice. For passengers, like consumers switching electricity provider, the ultimate product looks pretty much the same.
While TfL has approved the other apps, Uber is for now the only one that flags up public transport alternatives – which are often quicker and far cheaper – in central London. After fiddling with multiple apps and frustrating waits, the idea of a bus, a walk and more cash in your pocket is pretty appealing.
And the also-rans
An extensive fleet of smart private hire vehicles made this the big challenger to black cabs, pre-Uber. App offers fixed fares and future bookings.
Formerly MyTaxi (which swallowed Hailo), this is an app to call traditional black cabs rather than flag one down on the street. Taxis get to go quicker on congested roads using bus lanes, and the fare difference can be erased during rivals’ surge pricing. It is in eight other UK cities, including Edinburgh, Manchester and Brighton.
Another black-cab app, with the same advantages. Fares are charged by the meter, with an electric taxi option. It’s bigger in cities outside the capital.
This Uber-style rival from India is threatening to join the turf war. It started its UK operations in south Wales but is now licensed by TfL and recruiting for a full London launch.