Is revoking Uber’s London licence an environmentally sustainable choice?

Uber has set a time-bound target for electrification in London - but none of its other 700+ cities globally. Image: Source London

TfL’s announcement today that Uber is not “fit and proper” to hold a licence in London has sent shock-waves across the transport sector.

The body said it had taken the decision over concerns around passenger safety and data security – the same topics raised at a 2017 hearing, in which TfL declined to renew Uber’s licence. This decision was later overturned and a two-year extension granted.

But whether you share Uber’s opinion that TfL’s decision was “extraordinary and wrong”, or TfL’s view that more should have been done to ensure that passengers can only use licenced and insured drivers, there is also an environmental aspect to the discussion.

Earlier this year, a survey of more than 2,000 UK-based Uber users found that almost half (47%) chose the service as they believed it to be more environmentally friendly than using a traditional taxi or taking their own vehicle.

While a general shift away from car ownership towards sharing models is often posited as a solution for sustainable mobility systems in urban areas – and, indeed, is being recorded in places such as London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, debate around whether Uber is doing more environmental harm or good have dogged the company for months.

With this in mind, edie explores the environment-related pros and cons of the controversial ride-hailing giant.

Eco win?

Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, is widely regarded as a purpose-driven figure and maintains that the ethos of the business is to “do the right thing, period”. He took the reins at the firm after co-founder Travis Kalanick stepped down in 2017 and, since then, Uber has hired its first vice president of new mobility and implemented several targets around e-mobility and smart mobility in its UK and US markets.

In the US – Uber’s biggest global market – the company is supporting its drivers to deliver more than five million rides in fully electric vehicles (EVs) across seven cities: Austin, Los Angeles, Montreal, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Throughout this process, Uber is providing drivers with financial support to switch to an EV and giving users that ride with these drivers in-app information about EVs. EV pilots in which users can specifically request cleaner vehicles are also underway in Paris and Lisbon.

Nonetheless, Uber has not set a time-bound, numerical target for EV adoption in the US, or, indeed, for any of its other 63 national markets except the UK.

Uber’s UK target is for all drivers listed on its app to be completing 100% of journeys in EVs or hybrid-electric vehicles by 2025. UberX journeys made in London already adhere to this target but, to expand EV adoption, Uber recently introduced a 15p-per-mile “eco charge” to journeys within the capital. Funding raised through this channel is ring-fenced to be used as grants for drivers who need support to buy an EV.

Acknowledging that London is a congested city with ample public transport offerings and cycling infrastructure, Uber is additionally showing London-based users the comparative cost and journey time of opting for modes of transport including tube, bike and rail. It is also increasingly promoting its ride-sharing service, Uber Pool, in London and other cities.

… Or eco sin?

While the above moves have broadly been welcomed by users and members of the green economy alike, the fact remains that Uber drivers complete around 15 million trips every day – the majority of which involve vehicles with an internal combustion engine (ICE) and are made by those who own cars. 

Recent research commissioned by campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) found that the number of registered private hire vehicles (PHVs) rose from 15,000 to 30,000 in France between 2015 and 2019, with an increase of 25,000 to 45,000 in London recorded within the same timeframe. In both cities, Uber accounted for roughly half of new registrations and, in both cities, registrations were dominated by ICE vehicles. Nine in ten vehicles in France’s overall PHV fleet are diesel.

Since Uber first arrived in London, the number of taxi and PVH trips made in the capital have increased by 25%, T&E’s report reveals. The body claims that this trend “strongly correlates” with a 23% increase in overall CO2 emissions for the taxi and PHV sector in the UK in the same period. 

T&E’s research resulted in a call to action for Uber to transition to 100% EVs and hybrids in all major cities globally by 2025, which has been backed by green economy groups across the globe. Groups backing this move – the Sierra Club (US), Nabu (Germany), Respire (France), MilieuDefensie (Belgium), Bond Beter Leefmilieu (Belgium), Les Chercheurs d’Air (Brussels) – argue that city mayors, local authorities and national Governments can help Uber to meet this target by implementing frameworks such as London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

Uber has not yet responded to this call to action.

Moreover, whilst Uber claims it is helping cities to alleviate congestion and air pollution through its ‘Movement’ tools for urban planners, cities including New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco have claimed that the presence of Uber, alongside competitors such as Lyft, has actually compounded both of these problems. Similarly, T&E’s research found that PVH and taxi services account for 10-20% of traffic in European cities.

Over to you



Sarah George

Comments (2)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    Can the author explain how hundreds of people driving hundreds of other people around in cars is environmentally sustainable?

    If ALL taxis/Ubers were 100% electric then perhaps but they aren’t. They sit at ranks waiting with their diesel engines idling all day or drive around hoping for a fare pumping diesel (and petrol) fumes into the city air.

    Surely in somewhere like London it is better to improve public transport (already miles ahead of most other places in UK) so no one needs to take a car/taxi/Uber/etc (unless they have a serious disability). Or promote e-bike use instead as the primary choice for personal transport in all our towns and cities.

  2. Karin Grey says:

    Ride-hailing is not ride sharing and cannot be considered as environmentally sustainable. EV’s are zero tail pipe emissions, but still release particulates from tyre and brake wear and do not resolve congestion, plus there is still the carbon emission from making the cars to the electricity.

    The evidence points to ride hailing companies increasing the amount of car miles driven, the number of cars on the road and associated increase in congestion.

    Support for sustainable public transport needs to increase alongside active travel with an increase in good quality cycling infrastructure benefiting air quality, climate change and health.

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