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. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.