(Original edit of article for CallOver magazine).
Several British cities have recently been criticised for poor air quality, and as a reaction to the European Union’s huge fine for allowing such high levels of traffic pollution in London, Boris has announced that from 2018, TfL will no longer issue licences to taxis that can’t show close to zero emissions.
Firstly, I am wondering why pollution levels are so high. I mean we have a Congestion Charge, so surely there are fewer vehicles on Central London roads than there were years’ ago? And engines are cleaner. Going back to when I was a wet-behind-the-ears Butter Boy driving a filthy FX4 around, there was one important difference: there was more space. Now, madcap anti-motorist schemes are slowing traffic up with speed humps, chicanes, blocked-off roads, and pointless diversions. These misguided “traffic calming” schemes slow everything down and keep vehicles on the road for longer.
Many useful roads that existed when I started out have been blocked off, narrowed to almost nothing, or have been subject to turning restrictions. Many roads in the City were restricted on the pretext of preventing IRA terrorism in the 80s and 90s. There’s little threat now, but the restrictions continue. It’s almost impossible to get off Upper and Lower Thames Streets now. Years ago, there used to be several roads you could use, but now once you’re past Blackfriars you’re stuck with it! It’s a nasty road to be stuck on, particularly if you’re on a fixed price account job to City Airport and it’s your own time you’re wasting. Southwark Bridge is almost inaccessible from the north or west. Years ago you could drive straight down King Street from Gresham Street, through Queen Street, Queen Street Place, and straight on to the bridge. Further west, Oxford Street is only wide enough in places to accommodate a bus, and it looks like Regent Street might be going the same way. I see some of the kerbs are being removed in Oxford Street. Is this to allow cycles and pedicabs to move smoothly on and off the pavement without harming their tyres?
Years ago we were all encouraged to buy diesel vehicles. Most taxis had diesel engines, so all was well. Then things changed, and diesel drivers started to be held responsible for most of the pollution in our urban centres. We’re now told that the future is electric. True enough, a Dutch taxi company, Taxi Electric, are already running a fleet of Nissan Leaf’s, and they’re keen to roll out the new electric Nissan NV200.
Towards the end of this year we’ll be able to choose new cab, with more models to follow over the next few years. In London, the Nissan NV200 will have a petrol engine, though the choice of electric looks likely in a year or two. Exciting times for sure. But I’ll hang on to my Euro 4 Filth Cart for a few more years and see how things develop.
I like the idea of driving a nice smooth cab, as quiet as a milk float. It’ll be great to be able to converse with my passengers without twisting my head to shout through a four-inch gap in the partition. But I prefer character over modernity. Do I really want a van conversion? Or any cab that doesn’t look like a cab as we know it? No, not really, but it’s a lot cheaper to run I’d have to consider my options carefully.
I’m not sure how you’d go about charging an electric vehicle. There are some charging points around London, though I don’t know how easy they are to use, or how much they cost. If electric cabs take off, installing charging bays on ranks, or at taxi cafes, could be a good move. I’m not sure what we do when we’re at home. Can you run an extension lead out of your letter box plugged into the mains? It sounds impractical if you live in a flat, and dangerous under any circumstance, especially when next door’s dog finds it.
The Fraser-Nash Corporation say their forthcoming hybrid Metrocab will run up to sixty miles on lithium batteries, then switch to petrol power. The engine then re-charges the batteries in fifteen minutes. You can also charge it at home for £1.50 per night. I’m still not sure how the charging procedure works in practice, but it sounds an exciting development. Whatever you think of the new Metrocab, you’ve got to admit it’s unique, and it’s a purpose-built taxi rather than a van conversion.
It all seems too good to be true though. If driving becomes cheaper, surely more people will do it? The air might become cleaner, but congestion will be a nightmare. It’s interesting that prosperity in China is leading people to dump their cycles and buy cars, while we’re going the other way!
My main thought is that if it costs £1.50 per day to charge, the government won’t be making any money out of us. 59% of the price of diesel is tax. I can’t imagine the government letting me fill up for £1.50 a day for very long. What will happen when their introductory offer ends? I’m also sceptical that the authorities are going to let motorists park for free up to five hours at charging bays should they become popular. No, they will get their money back somehow, so watch out.
Thinking positively, it’s clear that London cab drivers will eventually have a wider range of vehicles to choose from, plus the option of going electric. There will be van conversions, at least one purpose-built taxi, and a revamped offering from the London Taxi Company. Time will tell if the new vehicles will prove cost-effective and reliable, and whether they can be easily charged up. I don’t see much hope for road congestion, though it might eventually be cleaner and quieter on the streets due to cleaner, quieter, engines. I don’t trust that pesky government though. If I eventually take the plunge and go electric, I shall definitely be keeping an eye on my electricity bill.