Uber has won its appeal to continue operating in London, a judge for the Westminster Magistrates’ Court announced in a decision today. The company is being given a probationary license that requires a review every 15 months. The city’s transportation authority, Transport for London, declined to renew Uber’s license in September 2017. Uber continued operating in London after it appealed TfL’s decision last fall.
According to the decision, Uber will have to provide TfL with an independently-verified audit of its own operations every six months. The decision also lays out specifics that Uber must adhere to when it comes to reporting criminal activity by its drivers, complaints from users, or changes to the way it handles the data of drivers and passengers.
“We are pleased with today’s decision,” Tom Elvidge, the general manager of Uber in the UK, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with TfL to address their concerns and earn their trust, while providing the best possible service for our customers.”
TfL originally cited 25 concerns in its decision to ban Uber, most involving safety and regulation. They included the company failing to report serious crimes and skipping background checks for drivers. “Providing an innovative service must not be at the expense of customer safety and security,” London’s Mayor Sadiq Kahn said at the time.
Yesterday in court, both sides took conciliatory steps. TfL said its stance had “moved to one of effective neutrality,” while Uber accepted that the agency’s decision last September was “fully justified.” Uber lawyer Thomas de la Mare told the court: “The onus is on us [...] We accept that TfL’s decision was the right decision at the time.”
Since TfL revoked its license, Uber has made a number of changes to its service. It has pledged to report any “serious incidents” that occur during rides directly to the police, has introduced 24-hour telephone support hotlines, and added a “panic button” to its app that lets riders instantly call the police.
Senior district judge Emma Arbuthnot acknowledged these changes in her decision, and said that Uber’s choice of a former banking executive to chair its UK operations factored heavily in her decision to give the company a new license. “I was satisfied that under her Chairmanship, as long as she is kept informed of what is happening day-to-day in the business, that the changes that [Uber] has put in hand will be maintained,” Arbuthnot wrote. “Without her evidence I would have had even more concerns about granting a license.”
Uber has a large incentive to keep operating in London. The city is the company’s biggest European market and home to some 3.5 million Uber users. It’s also firm’s foothold in the UK, home to around 40,000 of its 50,000 drivers in the country. The battle between TfL and Uber is likely to affect decisions by local authorities elsewhere in the UK, including Birmingham, York, and Bristol, where the company has faced similar challenges.
While Uber has responded to a number of TfL’s specific criticisms, the appeal has also become a referendum of sorts on the company’s ethical conduct. The decision to revoke Uber’s license came at the height of the firm’s headline-grabbing 2017, which saw the company’s internal culture of harassment and sexism exposed by former engineer Susan Fowler; founding CEO Travis Kalanick replaced by Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi; and hundreds of thousands of users deleting the company’s app over Kalanick’s decision to join Trump’s economic council.
After TfL’s ban was originally announced, Khosrowshahi wrote to the company’s staff, saying: “The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation. It really matters what people think of us, especially in a global business like ours.”
Of all Uber’s scandals in 2017, though, one that particularly interested TfL was “Greyball” — an internal program that stopped government regulators using Uber taxis. TfL said Greyball was evidence that Uber was not “fit and proper” to hold a license in London, while Uber denied that the software had been used “for the purposes cited by TfL.” The judge’s decision granting Uber its probationary license explicitly states that “[Uber] shall not use any software, tool or any other mechanism to interfere with or evade any enforcement action by a regulatory or law enforcement authority, including the licensing authority.”
Since Khosrowshahi took over Uber in August, the CEO has been on a road show of sorts, trying to rehabilitate Uber’s image. He’s visited the company’s offices around the world, met drivers in different countries, and addressed Uber’s behavior in person in London. He’s also tried to turn the public’s attention to the future of Uber, whether that be electric bikes or flying cars.
The changes Khosrowshahi’s put in place have apparently been enough for TfL, though. The agency’s lawyers said last week that the issues that drove TfL not to renew Uber’s license “have either been addressed by changes introduced by” the company, “or they relate to an historic course of conduct that has now been abandoned.”