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Ubers in London
Photograph: Time Out

What’s going on with Uber drivers right now?

Why’s it so hard to get a lift? And why do they always cancel? We spoke to cabbies to get to the bottom of London’s problem with ride-hailing apps

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence
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Picture the scene: you’ve stumbled out of the club at some godforsaken hour. Eyes blurry, mouth dry, you’re feeling wonkier than a bendy bus. Fumbling for your phone, you book an Uber to come and rescue you. But what’s this? A driver has accepted, but the tiny car on the screen keeps getting further and further away. Eventually, the ride gets cancelled. Your glimmer of hope begins to disappear, and you trudge towards the night bus instead, feeling like a powerless earthling defeated by the faceless overlords of ride-hailing apps.

You might have noticed that this is happening a lot at the moment. Last-minute cancellations, cars driving away when they’re within a hair’s breadth, struggling to have a ride accepted: getting an Uber in London feels as random and fruitless as trying to bag Glastonbury tickets. So what the heck is actually going on?

The short answer is: the demand for Uber currently outweighs the supply. According to an Uber spokesperson, since 2019 there’s been a 5 percent drop in the number of their drivers in London, but at the same time, demand for rides is up by 10 percent. During the pandemic many drivers left Uber, taking up delivery jobs or simply moving to different professions. A lot of them haven’t come back. ‘They realised that driving for Amazon was easier than driving passengers around,’ says Grant*, who’s been driving Ubers in London for more than eight years. 

‘Lots of drivers aren’t British so when the pandemic came many of them went back to places they’re from,’ he adds. ‘And Brexit didn’t help either.’ But it’s not just the driver shortage that means app cabs are now more likely to cancel. App driving isn’t as lucrative as it once was, and cabbies need to make sure their work is worth their time. 

Time is money

On top of all the usual reasons why drivers might not want you in their car – drunken behaviour, reeking of booze, you cradling a massive kebab – the cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel costs mean drivers are making less money than before, which has led to tweak the apps to get the most bang for their buck. 

Every driver has got different tactics for how they play the system

‘Every driver has got different tactics for how they play the system,’ says Grant, who’ll make around £350 on a good night. Although Uber prices went up by 10 percent in November 2021, off-the-chart inflation in the UK means that this hasn’t done much for the bank accounts of drivers. On top of that, Uber recently switched from basing fares on time and distance to fixed prices, meaning the taxi metre was effectively scrapped. For London drivers, where there are high levels of traffic, road works and tons of other reasons why journeys might get delayed, this is far from ideal. ‘This goes against the drivers,’ Grant says, who adds that mounting fuel costs are going to ‘cripple’ them.

‘The fares have become so low, drivers will not take the job. In the past, the minimum fare was £3 and it was £1.20 per mile. The minimum in London is now £4.30 and £1.06 per mile. Back then, petrol was 65p per litre, not £1.65 as it is today,’ another driver, Michael*, tells Time Out. 

Dynamic pricing means drivers often straddle two apps and pick the rides that have the highest prices: if Bolt is surging, but Uber isn’t, drivers will cancel their Uber trips in favour of Bolt rides, or they’ll wait for prices to go up as high as possible before accepting any rides at all. ‘It's often because they work for local firms too or other apps and if they’re offered a better job, they cancel Uber,’ Michael explains. 

Although drivers may incur waiting-time fees, time spent idle and miscalculated arrivals are still an issue. ‘Drivers don’t get paid for time,’ one driver, who wanted to remain anonymous, says. ‘If you’re going on a four-mile journey, the driver will get £7.50. It will take around five minutes to reach the passenger, five minutes waiting, and a 30-minute drive, so that’s a 40-minute round trip.’ Grant backs this up, explaining how he might only make £4.30 – the minimum fare in London  – for a 20-minute round trip. This is worse in certain areas, like Shoreditch, meaning some drivers will avoid them altogether.

No-go zones 

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have been a major source of contention for Londoners over the past couple of years. For Uber drivers, LTNs simply mean wasted time, as many don’t want to squander precious minutes literally driving round the houses. ‘Uber’s navigation doesn’t know where the LTNs are,’ Grant says. ‘In Hackney and Dalston, where there are more LTNs, this is a particular problem.’

There’s one nightclub in the West End I now avoid because every person I’ve picked up from there has been a pain in the arse 

Other Londoners told us they had cars cancelled after drivers realised the trip would go into the ULEZ. While black cabs don’t have to fork out the £12.50 a day to pay the congestion charge, if they don’t have a ULEZ-compliant car, Uber drivers have to foot the bill themselves, only being paid back £1.50 per trip from Uber. 

Many drivers will also avoid places they know they’ll get a lot of drunk and unruly ‘problem passengers’. ‘A lot of drivers, if they see a job and it’s going into Soho on a Saturday night, they won’t accept it,’ Grant says. ‘There’s one nightclub in the West End I actually now avoid because every time I’ve picked people up from there they’ve been a pain in the arse.’

The road ahead 

While Uber is trying to combat the driver shortage, it’s not been plain sailing for the company. ‘It’s really hard and long to get through the TfL licensing funnel,’ says a spokesperson from Uber. ‘We currently have 800 drivers who are going through the process which takes up to ten months. And it can cost drivers in excess of £700. There’s also a backlog from the pandemic.’ Soon, Uber also plans to introduce multi-stop fees for time spent at on-trip stops.

But all in all, with the shortage of drivers, app cabbies are able to be more picky about the jobs they accept. And we can’t blame them for wanting to maximise their moolah: times are tough. ‘We don’t get much in the way of tips,’ Grant says.

Londoners better get used to forking out more and waiting longer for a taxi. Otherwise, they’re destined for night-bus purgatory.

*Names have been changed.

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