London black cabs taking part in an anti-minicab protest on the Mall, in 2009. Photo: Getty Images.
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Uber is now integrated into Google Maps and the New York Subway

It's easier than ever to experience surge pricing.

Back in June, cabbies in cities including London, Berlin, Paris and Madrid went on strike to protest against Uber: a taxi firm-cum-social networking app that links smartphone users to private drivers. The cabbies said they were protesting against a dangerous lack of regulation; everyone else thought they were protesting the rise of a competitor.

That rise, though, has continued unimpeded, and over the last week, two things have happened to highlight it. The first is best summed up by this screenshot of Google Maps, taken from an Android phone:

Look at the last item on that list: ask for directions, and the map automatically offers you the option of taking an Uber car. Click that button, and it launches the app.

This is not perhaps as surprising as it seems - Google Ventures invested $258 million into Uber last year, in the largest such deal the internet giant has yet made. What's more, this functionality is not universal – if you don't have the app, you don't see the button, and our limited sample size shows it's not appearing on at least some iPhones yet, either. But it is, nonetheless, quite the win for a taxi firm to get itself integrated into the world's biggest mapping app. (Team-ups between taxi apps and transport apps are quite the zeitgeist at the moment: last week Hailo announced its integration into CityMapper, too.)

The other piece of news is rather less world-shaking – and may even highlight Uber's limitations. For the next five weeks, a section of the G train of the New York Subway, which links Brooklyn and Queens, will be closed for repairs. That means a two mile gap in the network, from Court Square to Nassau Avenue.

For commuters, this is a pain; for Uber, it’s an opportunity. The firm has released a promo code which geographically challenged New Yorkers can use to get one free ride to plug that gap. This is quite obviously not a long-term replacement for regular commuters – but it might encourage people to download the app and give Uber a whirl. Effectively, the firm is giving out free samples.

There is, however, a twist. The journey that the promo code covers is, Uber reckons, worth an average of $14. But the exact price of that fare will vary because of the firm’s use of “surge pricing”. At times, an Uber car can be very good value, but the more demand there is, the more expensive they become. To take account of this, the firm has given its voucher a value of up to $30.

But this, remember, is a journey of just 1.5 miles: you could walk it in half an hour. According to TaxiFareFinder.com, that should cost you about $9.41. What Uber is telling us is that its cars can sometimes cost three times as much as a yellow New York cab.

Uber claims that it's now cheaper than taxis – and, sometimes, it is. But at other times, it's a lot more expensive. This free sample may, paradoxically, remind everyone of this fact.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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