Ulez should be in every British city, says Uber’s UK chief

·6 min read
Andrew Brem the head of Uber UK, in his London Headquarters.17th MARCH 2023LONDON - David Rose
Andrew Brem the head of Uber UK, in his London Headquarters.17th MARCH 2023LONDON - David Rose

Sadiq Khan’s Ulez should be expanded to cities across the UK, Uber has said, as it races to make all its cars fully electric in two years’ time.

Andrew Brem, Uber’s general manager for the UK, said imposing charges on more polluting vehicles is “essential” to encourage adoption of zero-emission cars. The ride-sharing company is in talks with other cities about how to introduce them.

“That sort of intervention in our view is essential to having significant change in a city about adoption of electric vehicles (EVs),” Brem said.

“Regulatory regimes that support a massive transformation towards EVs, I think are really good. And we are talking to other authorities around the UK to see who might be keen to do something similar in their area.”

The Ultra Low Emission Zone, introduced by London’s mayor in 2019, is due to extend to all of the capital’s boroughs in August, covering most of the area inside the M25. It imposes a £12.50 a day charge on older diesel and petrol vehicles.

Some Uber drivers have reportedly refused to take trips inside the zone due to the charges, although Brem said only a tiny percentage had been affected by it. The company has said all cars on its service in London will be electric by the end of 2025 and nationwide by 2030, the same year the Government plans to ban sales of new petrol cars.

Transport for London now only grants private hire licences to EVs, which are also exempt from the congestion charge.

The company has introduced surcharges on journeys to subsidise drivers seeking to buy or rent a vehicle by up to £3,000.  It also pays extra fees to drivers for journeys in electric cars.

The rising cost and slow supply of EVs, an absence of charging points and higher electricity costs, and the removal of Government subsidies have threatened to slow down the rise of electric cars.

Brem has stuck by the target, first announced in 2018, however. “It is quite a mountain to climb, it’s not going to be straightforward. Petrol prices have come down, which is in many ways good, but it’s not great for encouraging people to move to electric,” he said.

Uber now has more than 8,000 EVs in London, less than one in five of its 45,000 cars in the capital but the firm’s highest total of any city in the world. More than 20,000 additional cars will be available under deals with the rental companies Hertz and Moove.

Brem, the former chief commercial officer of British Airways, took charge of Uber’s UK business last April, weeks after it secured a new licence from Transport for London that gave it a two-and-a-half-year pass to operate in the capital.

The decision appeared to draw a line under almost a decade of conflicts between the US tech giant and TfL, during which the company had repeatedly taken the regulator to court in order to keep operating in London.

The company has sought to improve its reputation and relationships with drivers, after being accused of breaking employment laws and failing to invest in safety measures.

Two years ago, Uber started paying drivers holiday pay, pensions and a guaranteed minimum wage, after it lost a lengthy legal battle seeking to classify them as self-employed contractors.

So far the move has cost it £800m – £300m since starting the scheme and nearly £500m in historic payments. Last year, it changed its business model in a way that makes it liable for paying VAT on rides.

Brem has spent much of his year in charge of Uber UK trying to encourage more people to drive for the service, amid a shortage that has left passengers struggling to find rides during busy times.

After thousands abandoned the platform during Covid lockdowns, it has signed up around 20,000 new drivers in the last two years who can expect to earn an average of £30 an hour. “It [the imbalance] is significantly better than it was six, nine, twelve months ago. But we would still like to have more,” Brem said.

TfL has now issued more than 100,000 private hire licences - five times as many as for black cabs - and hired more staff to accelerate new applications. Uber, meanwhile, has brought doctors into its driver hubs to speed up medical checks and put on its own training courses in an attempt to get more drivers on the road.

Brem said smaller rivals were not being forced to play by the same rules. Bolt, the Estonian app that is Uber’s biggest competitor in the UK, has not offered drivers pension and holiday pay, despite facing its own legal battles over the issue.

“Currently, there are economic disadvantages of following all the rules properly,” Brem said. “It just seems, to me, really strange that other players in the industry have not followed suit on that. From a pure economics point of view, this is not fair. And I think it's totally inevitable that they're going to follow suit. We didn't see that it might take several years for other people to do what was obviously the right thing.”

Critics argue that Uber only introduced the changes after fighting against them for years in the courts, and that couriers on its UberEats takeaway service do not enjoy the same benefits.

London is Uber’s biggest city outside the US and the UK accounted for $4.2bn (£3.5bn) in revenue last year, around 13pc of the company’s total. Its shares have recovered from a slump last year, but remain below the price set at the company’s $80bn US flotation in 2019.

FILE PHOTO: An UberEATS food delivery courier stands in front of his bike in London, Britain September 7, 2016. Picture taken September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall/File Photo - NEIL HALL/REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: An UberEATS food delivery courier stands in front of his bike in London, Britain September 7, 2016. Picture taken September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall/File Photo - NEIL HALL/REUTERS

In Britain, the company is seeking to move beyond its core rides business and become a one stop shop for transport. Users can now book train, coach and Eurostar journeys through the app, as well as rent cars.

Brem has already put his old connections at British Airways to work: passengers can earn BA’s Avios points through rides, and the company plans to add flight bookings and hotels to the app. “Consumers are saying, ‘This makes total sense. It's super easy. I just use one app’,” says Brem.

A more familiar type of transport might also be returning to the platform. London’s ranks of cabbies have been longtime critics of Uber, and once regularly blocked streets in protest at the app.

Uber once added the option to book a London taxi, but removed it after few cabbies signed up. Last year, Uber’s chief Dara Khosrowshahi struck deals with taxi drivers in France, Italy and Belgium to bring them back on the app. Brem says he would like to see the same in London.

“It is our globally stated strategy to have every cab of every sort on the Uber platform,” he added. “And so I'd say watch this space, it could well happen. I hope that one day it will take place.”