In London, Uber has won the battle but risks losing the war

Published in TechCrunch

The sighs of relief are palpable. Uber can keep operating in London. With 3.6 million customers, 45,000 drivers and a slew of reforms, changes and concessions already made to Transport for London (TfL), most observers expected Uber  to win a reprieve — and they did. Uber passed the first of two tests.

The second test is a little less obvious — and a lot harder. Being able to navigate the political climate in Europe demands that Uber not only demonstrate contrition, but implement real change too. But if Uber loses sight of who the end user is, winning the battle in London doesn’t eliminate the risk of losing the entire war everywhere.

Here’s the thing: Regulation is neither inherently good nor bad. Taxi regulation wasn’t all fundamentally evil and corrupt when Travis Kalanick  ran Uber and it’s not all fundamentally necessary and appropriate under Dara Khosrowshahi’s  reign either. That’s because there are no laws of nature on how ridesharing — or even transit in any form — should operate. It’s all a series of choices, priorities and trade-offs between competing public and private needs and capabilities. It’s just a question of getting people from point A to point B in the most efficient, cost-effective way possible. That’s it.

Uber has seen so much success so quickly because the previous system simply didn’t work. More than 75 million people wouldn’t have downloaded and regularly use Uber if they were happy with their current options. If transit regulation were functioning effectively, traditional taxis would have evolved to meet the needs of its customers and the market wouldn’t have been so fast and so easy for the taking. Like any successful entrepreneur, Travis saw an opening in the market and took it. Just because Uber then committed a series of very public missteps and public relations gaffes doesn’t make any specific regulation more or less necessary, thoughtful or intelligent.

When Uber started collecting signatures from its customers in London to support its right to operate, 850,000 people signed. They’re the ones who ultimately matter. The customer is far too often ignored in highly regulated industries, which, sadly, are frequently dominated by special interest, pay to play politics (balancing the relative power and needs of insiders typically becomes paramount to actually creating logical public policy).

That’s why Dara has to be careful. Contrite? Yes. Calm. Absolutely. Losing London wasn’t an option. But if the game changes just to appease and placate the critics at every turn in hopes that the people who help shape public opinion stop complaining, it’s a losing battle. Appeasement is not a strategy in and of itself. Meeting the demands of the market is.

Many of the changes Uber agreed to in London are worthwhile: 24-hour telephone support hotlines, better contact with the police, better reporting of incidents, imposing limits on hours worked before taking a break, hiring independent directors. But if they’re all just coming from a place of trying to get people to stop criticizing you, you’re worrying about the wrong people in the first place.

Uber’s greatest asset is its customer base. Uber’s greatest reason to exist is customer demand. The people’s needs were being unmet by taxis and ignored by the regulators. That’s why Uber had an opening. That’s why customers flocked to the platform. Yes, Uber has a ton of work to do — both as a business itself and as a culture still very much in flux. But that doesn’t mean losing sight of who you are. Just being the anti-Travis isn’t enough. Taxi already was the original anti-Travis. That didn’t work.

In this current political climate, it makes sense for Dara to speak softly. But if he wants more than just pats on the back and positive comments on Twitter, he’d better carry a big stick too.

Bradley Tusk