Uber meets its match – Belfast.


William, I’d guess, was about 50.  In the 10  minutes we spent together our conversation was essentially limited to one subject – but I gathered that he had driven taxis for a good few years. He owned his own taxi and the business that went with it, and knew everything there was to know about driving jobs. Always willing to try something new to bring in a little more money, William had recently started doubling up his taxi business with being an Uber driver. And he was the first one I’d met in Belfast.

William isn’t really impressed with the work he’s getting. His fares generated through Uber were considerably less than his usual, but it did help him access the tourist market which he had struggled to get at before.

But at the same time William acknowledged that Uber isn’t really for drivers like him. It’s more for drivers like me. Instead of leaving my car parked outside my house every evening I could be using it to take people where they need to go, earning me a few extra pounds that I otherwise wouldn’t be getting. I’d be contributing to the number of cars on the road during peak times as well to meet the demand for taxis in a city that can be impossible to get around on a Friday or Saturday night.

The only thing stopping this happening is the insistence that Uber drivers here have a full taxi licence.

In typical fashion, Belfast has managed to take something that had worked well in 68 countries across the globe, and completely mess it up. The city of regressive bus lanes and deliberately manufactured traffic jams strikes again.

Uber isn’t hard to understand. It works on the basis that some people have cars and that some people require the use of a car. It essentially connects them.

A majority of households in Belfast don’t own a car but they still have to go places – it stands to reason that households without a car would benefit from a taxi service that undercuts all the current players in the local market.

The policy of making Uber drivers have a full taxi licence is only going to deny the people of Belfast cheaper transport. It means that Uber is effectively trying to recruit from the same pool of qualified drivers and asking them to work for less money. This isn’t going to happen.

Not content with this, Stormont is now pondering a move to make all taxis have meters and receipt printing machines, which would not only burden Uber drivers with unnecessary costs but also prove quite useless. As a demonstration of where Stormont’s understanding of technology disruption is though, it’s wonderful. Forcing anyone to use outdated technology in their service provision is just about the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard.

I haven’t looked into the rationale behind this sheer stupidity, though if challenged we would no doubt be met with the ‘passenger safety’ response. Because apparently being tracked via GPS is not enough of a guarantee of safety. But sitting through two tests and paying for a licence turns you into an entirely placid human being in the eyes of our benevolent overlords. The complete transparency offered by the digital tracking of your journey from booking to receipt to rating your driver scares these people but paper receipts do not.

The real reason, as always in this country, is to protect the vested interests, stifle competition and make sure no one loses the run of themselves. Don’t believe me? It isn’t the first time.

Welcome to Northern Ireland, turn your watch back 20 years.