Why Is It Still Impossible to Get an Uber?

The Uber shortage isn't the only nail in the taxi app's coffin.
Person Ordering An Uber On Their Phone At Night
Image: Getty

It's 4AM in Soho and you've just left the club. Swaying from side to side, you jab at the Uber app in the hopes of getting a ride home ASAP, to the warm comfort of your bed. So far, so normal. But for some reason, there's only one of those tiny Uber icons and it's 12 mins away. Uber accepts your ride and then immediately cancels. No other Ubers are available. Eventually you give up and head to a taxi rank, like it's 2005. 


You've probably noticed that, for at least a year now, there's been a nationwide Uber shortage. According to travel experts, this is due to a multitude of factors (Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, fuel shortages). But, while other industries appear to be bouncing back, Ubers remain impossible to catch. What gives? 

In March 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers should be entitled to workers’ rights, including a guaranteed national living wage, holiday pay and pension plan. Uber then swiftly increased its service fee to 25 percent on all fares, meaning they pocket a quarter of the money earned by each driver on every trip. They've also introduced upfront pricing – meaning that customers now pay a flat rate, as opposed to paying per mile and minute. This has caused drivers to lose out on longer fares.

Zamir Dreni has been working in the taxi courier industry for almost 25 years. He recently quit as an Uber driver after realising that he was barely breaking even. He claims that since Uber reduced the cost of fares and increased the company's percentage commission, most trips aren't even worth the money. 

“Everything has gone up,” he says today. “Fuel has gone up, insurance has gone up and licensing fees have gone up, while more and more fares have gone down.”

Zamir says that because of this, Uber drivers have become a lot more selective about which fares they take on. He says he once turned down over 100 fares in a day. Picking someone up is rarely worth it, so why bother? 


“There is not a driver shortage,” he asserts. “Drivers are picking and choosing their fares more carefully. Because Uber has increased the commission and lowered the cost of fares."

Zamir shared a screenshot with VICE (below) which show that for more than an hour-long trip across central London, an Uber driver could earn less than £16 – excluding the cost of any additional tolls. Another trip he showed us – of an Uber XL (which can take up to six people) from London Heathrow to Southampton – would cost the customer £81, which is considerably less than the cost of a group train ticket. Sure, this might be great for the customer – but it's completely pointless for the driver. 

An screenshot showing the price of an Uber

Screenshot provided by Zamir Dreni

“These companies – and Uber is just one of them – they own nothing. It is the driver who has the overheads,” he adds. “The company owns the app and the technology and that’s it. It’s easy to blame us and say there’s a driver shortage. But that’s just a myth.”

The Uber shortage isn't the only nail in the company's coffin. Earlier this week, The Guardian published a global investigation, the Uber Files, containing leaked details from 124,000 confidential company documents. The files exposed a series of secret lobbying campaigns between the tech company and top politicians between 2013 to 2017, during which Uber embarked on a major international expansion. It also showed how Uber exploited the safety of drivers by encouraging them to stage a counter-protest during the mass anti-Uber protest in Paris in 2016, which ultimately descended into violence. 


James Farrar is the General Secretary of the App Drivers & Couriers Union. He tells VICE that the Uber Files are nothing more than a “confirmation of what we already knew or suspected”. He also says that the union sees “no evidence” that drivers are better off now than before the Supreme Court ruling and that “the worst abuses of the gig economy” are yet to be eradicated. In other words, the company is driving away drivers because working for them sucks. 

“Driver numbers are nearly back to pre-COVID levels,” he adds. “But now they face more market risk because of the business model changes and runaway inflation.”

So, what about ordering a Bolt or Lyft instead, depending on where you live? Well, they suffer from the same problems as Uber. Last month, the GMB Union announced it was taking legal action against Bolt to demand that drivers have access to rights including minimum age and holiday pay. The company still follows a self-employment model, which means that drivers aren’t treated as paid workers, but as independent contractors. Lyft doesn’t operate in the UK yet, but in the US drivers are also not treated as employees with access to full rights. Farrar says that often Uber compares itself to competitors like Bolt or Lyft when it comes to protecting workers’ rights. But that’s hardly an impressive claim.


“Even after the Supreme Court ruling, Uber is barely better than Bolt,” says Farrar. “Bolt is the bottom of the barrel and Uber is one imperceptible millimetre above the putrid bottom of the same barrel.”

What does any of this mean for the future of taxi apps in general? Well, until companies like Uber, Bolt and Lyft stop pocketing their drivers’ profits and hacking away at their rights – or until we get a more ethical and practical alternative – it looks like we’re going to have to revert back to mini cabs and night buses. Fun!

When VICE contacted a spokesperson for Uber, this is what they had to say: “More than 10,000 new drivers have signed up with Uber in recent months and there are now over 80,000 drivers active across the UK. Uber is the only major ride-hailing platform in the UK to offer drivers worker benefits, including a guaranteed national living wage, holiday pay and pension plan, as well as representation through our historic recognition of GMB.”