Automotive > Connected Mobility Blog

TFL: Regulations Gone Wrong

by Roger Lanctot | Jul 16, 2020

The only thing worse than no regulation at all is a regulatory regime run amok. At no time is this clearer than in the midst of a pandemic when lives and livelihoods are on the line and leaders can make a difference with the stroke of a pen on a mandate or other regulatory requirement.

A classic case in point comes this week from LBC News in the United Kingdom where private hire drivers have been told by local regulator Transport for London to remove non-approved protective screens or face fines. According to LBC, the regulator says barriers of any kind will need a full safety inspection at a cost of £2,150 - £900 for a desktop review of partition screen material specification, and a further £1,250 for an assessment of a screen that is made of a material already "approved" by TFL.

LBC News - London's Private Hire Drivers Warned not to Rely on Makeshift Covid-19 Screens for Protection -

Four months in to the coronavirus crisis one would expect a regulator such as TFL to have proactively reached out to independent for-hire operators with a solution intended to protect drivers and passengers alike at minimal cost or even for free. There are upwards of 14 for hire operators of app-based transportation services in the London area alone – with dozens of smaller operators in London and throughout the U.K.

Safe transportation services in a pandemic are hard to come by, but for-hire providers are uniquely positioned to deliver these essential services to essential workers. There’s no question that protective barriers inside vehicles are a superior option to masked drivers and passengers.

Thousands of drivers for taxi, ride hailing, or other for-hire services around the world stopped driving when COVID-19 set in either because there was insufficient demand or out of fear of being infected by or spreading the virus. Operators took a 70%-80% hit to revenue. Many of the drivers who continued driving were forced to shift to package and food delivery to survive and others added their own makeshift partitions to protect themselves and passengers. Plenty of free rides were offered to essential workers.

Some operators around the world have taken the partition matter into their own hands including Estonia-based Bolt, China-based Didi Chuxing, Alto in the U.S., Germany-based Sixt, Russia-based Yandex, and platform operator HERE Mobility in Israel. Didi, in particular, stands out for having invested $14M in outfitting a portion of its vehicles with protective barriers.

Arguably, regulators around the world ought to have stepped in and forbidden transportation network companies from operating without barriers – of the sort commonly found in taxis and London’s black cabs. It is laudable that TFL has actually taken note of this issue and is seeking a solution.

TFL’s response, though, is wanting. One could argue that the regulator may be favoring the black cab community by requiring competing operators to work through certification companies such as Horiba Mira to get partitions inspected and approved. 

Under these circumstances a more satisfactory solution would be a proactive campaign led by the government and its regulatory infrastructure to facilitate fitment of for-hire vehicles with protective gear. Without the assurance of safe transportation alternatives essential workers such as doctors and nurses are left to their own devices putting themselves, for-hire drivers and the general public at risk.

At the very least, the regulator could review already available partitions and identify for the for-hire operators those existing options already offered for installation from legitimate aftermarket companies. After four months of coping with coronavirus concerns, aftermarket partitions for taxis and ride hailing operators are widely available around the world.

Rather than capitalizing on an opportunity in a crisis to provide critical transportation assistance to drivers and passengers alike, TFL has taken the opportunity to milk the crisis for a bit of dosh. And, sadly, given the size of the implicated expense it is likely that drivers will be put off – further, undermining a so-far disappointing recovery.

What we all know by now is that movement is a precious commodity – one we have all taken for granted. The highest priority for transportation regulators ought to be to lubricate the gears of mobility. Safety measures such as protective screens are an essential cog in the engine of recovery – intended to restore confidence among mobility consumers while protecting mobility operators. 

The limited adoption of protective screens in for-hire cars is limiting the ability of operators from Uber and Lyft to Gett and Ola and Grab to restore their operations to pre-COVID-19 levels. Drivers that have improvised protective screens should not be sanctioned unless certified solutions are in place and available. TFL is correct in identifying the problem – something that regulators elsewhere in the world, including the U.S. have been utterly silent on. But given the recent embrace of Brexit one would expect a more clever approach to meeting the regulatory challenge.

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