What Ubering Around London Taught Me About Brexit

In the build-up to the 2016 referendum that saw U.K. voters shock the world by voting to leave the European Union, tech companies such as Uber and Tinder targeted their largely under 35 user base with ads encouraging them to vote. Given that 75% of young voters opted for staying in the E.U., it is no surprise Prime Minister Cameron’s pro-E.U. government tapped these and other start-ups as ways to boost youth turnout, much to the chagrin of the Daily Mail.

Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick nonchalantly brushed off concerns about fallout from Brexit immediately post-referendum, and some argue it is a business opportunity for the ride-sharing company, naturally missing or ignoring the human toll, especially on Uber’s drivers.

During my nine days in London, I took 27 trips via Uber totaling £261.38 ($336.68). Of those 27 drivers, 26 were of non-British ancestry. While there were a couple of drivers who married British citizens and are in no danger, including a delightful Frenchman from Marseilles who waxed poetic about the Tricolor flag and insisted on speaking French once he learned of my rudimentary grasp of the language, most wound up in London via happenstance, established lives in the British capital, and are now at risk of having those destroyed thanks to the referendum.

One of my first drivers was Atik, a tall bearded man from eastern Romania who scrunched up to fit in his Prius and laughed at the absurdity of London’s traffic. After discussing the beauty of the Carpathian Mountains and the strategic importance of the Danube throughout history, he confessed his fear of being unwelcome in the United Kingdom and being sent back to Romania, a place he hasn’t lived since childhood and hasn’t visited for several years.

Then there was Christian, a Spaniard about my age who’d been forced out of his native country by crippling unemployment and a stagnant economy. He took me on an expedition to find power adapters (I’d forgotten all of mine) and tolerated my hopping through bank-holiday crowds in search of an open electronics store.

It’s worth mentioning the one native Brit I met, an older gentleman who’d just been evicted from his sandwich shop by a new landlord and was driving to kill time before he found a new shop location, was also the only one who had positive things to say about Donald Trump and spoke fondly of America’s obsession with national security.

Tudor, another Romanian, this time from Bucharest, picked me up on a side street in the busiest part of Soho at 10 p.m. and then returned home to study computer science, something he undertook as a form of self-improvement and a desire to find a stable, well-paying career to support himself and his family. He’s also saving for a trip to Italy, a country he’s been infatuated with for as long as he can remember. He thinks it might be his next home if he’s unable to stay in the United Kingdom.

My trip was rounded out by Simon, a Zimbabwean from Brussels who complimented my “inner-peace” and met every inconsiderate pedestrian and traffic jam with a warm smile and a wave. I learned of his fondness for cats, that his daughter was enjoying her first experiences with soccer, and that he’d recently given up organized religion. When he dropped me off I wandered aimlessly looking for my destination and he waited for me to find it before leaving, even asking if I was okay and offering a ride back to my original location.

These are only a small glimpse into my time in London and, more importantly, the lives of these drivers who are almost guaranteed to be negatively impacted by Brexit. It’s easy to remove the humanity from massive policy shifts. We forget there are 3 million more like Simon, Atik, Tudor, and Christian all throughout the United Kingdom. The next time we discuss London’s mass exodus of banks or impending Scottish Independence, let us also mention the individuals and their stories that are being permanently altered.


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