Uber has won its battle to continue operating in London, one of its biggest markets globally, after a judge found the company had sufficiently addressed concerns around driver verification.

The news comes after a three-year battle with Transport for London (TfL), the government body responsible for transport in the U.K. capital. The struggle started back in September 2017, when TfL ruled that Uber took insufficient “corporate responsibility” for passenger safety and security. Concerns included its approach to carrying out driver background checks and ensuring that the correct driver was behind the wheel.

Although Uber lost its license in 2017, it has continued to operate through temporary licenses and various appeal processes. In fact, Uber again lost its license to operate in London last November, with TfL affirming that Uber was not a “fit and proper” operator. Among TfL’s main concerns was the ease with which unauthorized drivers could upload their photos to authorized Uber driver accounts, allowing drivers without the necessary background checks to pick up passengers. This method was used in at least 14,000 trips, according to TfL, and Uber has since deployed new facial recognition technology to verify drivers.

The key arbiter in Uber’s latest effort to win back its London license was deputy chief magistrate Tanweer Ikram, who heard evidence from Uber’s lawyers detailing how the company has improved its processes to verify drivers and was then tasked with establishing whether Uber meets the “fit and proper” criteria. In his announcement today, Ikram found that Uber now generally fits that criteria, despite its “historical failings.”

“ULL [Uber London Limited] does not have a perfect record, but it has been an improving picture,” Ikram noted. “The test as to whether ULL are a ‘fit and proper person’ does not require perfection. I am satisfied that they are doing what a reasonable business in their sector could be expected to do, perhaps even more.”

London calling

The London struggle stands out among Uber’s long history of legal battles. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last year, the company said nearly a quarter of its global ride-share bookings come from just five metropolitan areas. Three of those are in the U.S. (Los Angeles, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area), one is in Brazil (São Paulo), and the fifth is in London, where at the time Uber claimed 3.5 million riders and 45,000 licensed drivers.

Closer to home, Uber and its rivals are engaged in an ongoing spat with Californian authorities over the companies’ decision to classify drivers as independent contractors. Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) is a new state law that requires a company to classify workers as employees if it exerts control over how they do their jobs or the work constitutes part of the person’s normal business. Uber threatened to shutter its ride-hailing business if it was forced to comply with the law, though it has been given a temporary reprieve ahead of a ballot initiative that takes the decision to California voters later this year.

Today represents a major victory for the San Francisco-based company as it struggles to recover from the pandemic that has decimated its core ride-hailing business. Over the past six months, Uber has continued to build out other areas of its business, including doubling down on grocery deliveries in the U.S. and reappropriating its platform to deliver just about anything for anyone.

Even with the world easing out of lockdown, Uber and its ilk are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic passenger counts anytime soon. But by winning back its license in such a major market, Uber will at least be in a stronger position when (or if) the world resumes some semblance of normality.

The next stage in Uber’s battle with TfL will be to agree on the terms and length of its London license.


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