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Night bus or black cab - what will save stranded Londoners post-Uber?

Journeys compared. 

Transport for London announced that Uber will not be issued a private hire operator licence after its current licence expires in a week's time on Saturday 30 September. 

The news of Uber's possible impending doom in London has spread like wildfire on social media. Some have applauded Mayor Sadiq Khan's bravery for standing up to a corporation that has taken pride in breaking the government's rules. Others are worried about the prospect of 40,000 Uber drivers losing their jobs. Some say the ruling unfairly restricts technological innovation and black cabs belong to the last century.

Ideological debate aside, for one of The New Statesman's resident Londoners, this is simply a practical question. If I've just had a few drinks with some friends by St Pauls on a Friday night (where our offices are), and I need to get back to my home in the South London neighbourhood of Peckham, as yet unconnected to the tube, how will I get there? 

Night bus

Before Uber, there was the night bus. From St Pauls, the quickest night bus to Peckham Rye is the N343. The only issue? The 24 minute walk to Borough Station beforehand. At which point the weary reveller hopes they haven't just missed one, because the N343 comes by only every half an hour. 

Night bus dissenters may argue that instead of walking so far, you could take the N21 to Old Kent Road, and then take the N63. This is true, but as any night pro knows, you should always avoid two bus journeys. The risk of sleeping on one, and missing your stop, can prolong your journey no-end. Also, who wants to leave the relative warmth of one bus to wait in the cold and dark for the next one? Better to just get all the walking out the way first. 

COST: £1.50 (for one bus or two, thanks to Sadiq Khan's Hopper fare)
TIME TAKEN TO GET HOME: 45 minutes to an hour. 
COMFORT: What's worse than falling asleep on a night-bus? The fear of falling asleep on a night-bus. Trust no one!

Addison Lee

If, during the long walk to Borough, you realise you have outgrown the night bus, there is Addison Lee. While drunkenly/sleepily trying to Google a number will be an effort (download the app, idiot), once you've managed to convey across the phone in a slurred manner where you are, you can expect be in a wonderful warm car in fewer than 20 minutes. 

COST: £20 
TIME TAKEN TO GET HOME: 25 minutes (not including time spent Googling and waiting for the car)
COMFORT: A standard car from Addison Lee is quote "Spacious and convenient. Typically a Ford Galaxy or Toyota Prius Plus. Free Wifi and phone chargers included". Addison Lee is the past and future!

Black cab

Too drunk to Google. Too drunk to phone. You see something resembling four wheels and furiously wave it down. Black cabs aren't cost-effective you say? I just spent £6 on a pint of ale that I had to pretend to like so that people at work think I'm like them. 

COST: £30
25 minutes
COMFORT: The driver knows exactly where to drop you off. He's a human Sat Nav.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.