Over the past few months, a question has been popping up across the group chats of London. Its answers are shrouded in baseless hypothesis and urban myth. No, it’s not whether there’s going to be another lockdown, it’s: why is it suddenly impossible to get an Uber or a Bolt these days?
Of course, that’s ‘impossible’ by impatient Londoner standards. By that, we mean that the cab drivers take longer to accept journeys and longer to arrive to pick you up than they did before, or that drivers are more likely to reject your request. Journeys seem to have increased in price too. (There were reports in the Telegraph earlier this year that some app-based cab journeys now cost more than those in black cabs.)
A lot of theories have been batted around as the reason for this. In the US there were stories about drivers being nervous to come back to work because of Covid transmission. CNBC reported that many had switched to grocery and food delivery as a safer work option (less human contact) while others were looking for work outside the gig economy.
Spokespeople for Uber and Bolt both say that the problem in London isn’t that drivers are leaving the industry, it’s that demand is higher than ever. A Bolt spokesperson told Time Out that the app is experiencing ‘record’ requests for journeys since Covid restrictions were lifted. They added that trips are more expensive as the app uses price surges to encourage more drivers to go online to meet demand.
An Uber spokesperson said that in most cities the app is now seeing a 20-40 percent increase in demand for journeys than before the pandemic. ‘There are 70,000 drivers working on the app today in the UK, which is the same number as before the pandemic,’ they said. ‘However, due to the increased demand we are actively recruiting 20,000 more to help get the service back to normal.’
Of course, that’s only one side of the story. According to David Lawrie, from the National Private Hire & Taxi Association, 100,000 drivers have left the private hire industry since the start of the pandemic. He says that lack of both taxi work and financial support for workers in the industry during lockdowns meant that many had to migrate to different roles – like becoming couriers and working in food delivery – to cover costs like vehicle insurance.
‘Why would Uber be hiring 20,000 additional roles if there was not a shortage of drivers?’ he says.
Speaking to the Mail earlier this year, two union reps warned that app cab drivers are leaving the industry. Many are so unhappy with their treatment that they are striking tomorrow. (For many reasons, including the fact that Uber does not by drivers for waiting time, which makes up 40 percent of drivers’ hours, meaning at the moment drivers often only make money on 60 percent of their time at work.)
Yaseen Aslam, president of the App Drivers and Couriers Union, said that long hours and low pay are forcing drivers out. Plus, James Farrar, from the App Drivers and Couriers Union, said that driving during the pandemic had affected cabbies’ mental health – they faced some of the highest death rates out of all British workers. He added that for the drivers still working, changes to Uber pricing – it’s worked out by quickest predicted journey length now rather than actual journey length – means that drivers are rejecting longer trips in favour of lots of short ones. (There’s less risk they’ll end up having to take a long diversion without getting paid for their extra time.) The fact that minicab drivers have to front the cost of congestion charges means that surely long trips through central London seem unappealing too.
Uber hopes that its recruitment plans will solve customer frustrations. It also hopes that improved worker rights for its drivers – holiday pay, pension and guaranteed National Living Wage – will encourage Londoners to take up life behind the wheel. Only time will tell.