(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).
Things move slowly in the cab trade. In 1973, Maurice Levinson’s publisher suggested that his next book reflected the changes in the cab trade over the past ten years. Maurice was scared of the suggestion at first, as in certain respects nothing much had happened in the past three hundred years, let alone ten.
Suddenly things are happening very fast. Technology is challenging centuries-old certainties and asking questions on how we go about our business. The changes are coming at such an alarming rate that no-one seems to know how to react. Recently we’ve had a lack of support from TfL, and the kerfuffle over Hailo and Uber. This has resulted in confusion and bad feeling.
As we speak, drivers are deleting their Hailo app and getting their logos removed. The cab drivers who founded Hailo should have known they would lose support for applying for a private hire licence. With work harder to find, private hire is regarded as competition more than ever. Many drivers feel betrayed by the company’s promise to deal exclusively with taxis. The people who saw Hailo as part of the solution, now see them as part of the problem.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to run any kind of taxi booking service. Marrying customers up with drivers is probably easy enough when there are plum account jobs to dish out, but it must be impossibly frustrating and worrying when demand outstrips supply in busy periods, and when you can’t cover jobs in poorly-served areas going around the corner.
Hailo possibly saw private hire as being able to take up some of the slack. Maybe they are just responding to corporate clients telling them that they want a choice of cab or car. Maybe, like they say, this will attract bigger accounts and that taxis will still cover 80% of the work. It might be too late now, but they might discover that their USP was that it only supplied taxis.
Uber: They Shall Not Pass
Maybe Hailo merely saw how things were going and panicked? Maybe they were spooked by Uber’s sleek advertising and bold claims: “Better, faster and cheaper than a taxi.” Uber’s business is also marrying up drivers with punters, but it’s all rather mysterious and anonymous, and with a sinister whiff of big business.
We pay a lot of money to TfL to get licensed and we jump through a lot of hoops. Cab owners go through the cab licensing procedure every year, and we chase around post offices every three years in order to renew our cab driver’s license. TfL keep us away from their office and have as little to do with us as possible. We don’t make big demands: just a few appropriately-sited ranks, and protection from unregulated operators and drivers. We expect TfL to keep up with developments and to protect us. The fact that Uber are essentially using meters isn’t really that important. A smokescreen. The fact that they should never have been licensed as an operator is the real issue. No way are Uber an operator. Uber’s website says they are “seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through (our) apps.” Are they using licensed private hire drivers attached to established companies, or independents going it alone? Either way, jobs are not going through a bona fide operator. They are not contacted through an office or a landline. Their drivers – whoever they are – are taking direct bookings while plying for hire in their cars. They are a virtual mini-cab company and they need to be stopped.
What possible interest could Google, Amazon and Goldman Sachs have in the London cab trade, apart from making a fast buck off our backs? Their plan might work in the world’s less-regulated cities. To drive for Uber in Paris you just need three years’ experience and personal insurance for your vehicle. Once they crossed the Channel we would have expected TfL to put a stop to it.
Established private hire businesses are likely to be affected by interlopers more than ours. Concerned private hire drivers voiced their opinions on LBC radio last month, and I agreed with every word the guest private hire spokesman said. Interestingly, this is possibly the first time ever that private hire agree with us – history in the making!
Selling Ourselves Short
I can understand and respect drivers wanting no contact with companies with private hire involvement. The difference in Hailo’s case is that the drivers saw Hailo as 100% on their side when they joined. They thought they’d be reclaiming the streets and taking work from private hire. Instead, they will be sharing work with them. It’ll be interesting to see if Get Taxi stick to their guns. They’ve been canvassing hard for support lately and must have gained some ex-Hailo drivers.
Radio circuits use private hire too. When I joined ComCab I had to make a business decision, and weigh up whether it was worthwhile. None of the circuits or app providers are charities. They are all doing it to make money. Who needs who the most is debatable, but they all take a piece of us. They either charge a subscription fee, take a cut of the fare, or make deals with account holders to provide cut price rides and free waiting time. Often all three. If I’m having a slow day I might take an £18 job from the City to Paddington knowing that there’s likely to be £24 on the meter. I weigh it up at the time and make the decision. We do the same job on the street and we keep 100% of the fare, the old fashioned way, like Mr Levinson in 1973. Will I get more Roaders through a circuit or working the streets? Do we rely on ourselves and go it alone, or do we buy into a service provider? We are not given jobs, we are sold jobs. We all sell ourselves to some extent. The question we need to ask is for how much?