Monthly Archives: July 2014

Buses, Taxis, and the Cashless Society

You can no longer pay by cash on a London bus. You can only pay by cash in most London taxis. As a London cab driver I’m asking myself if it’s time to embrace the cashless society, or is it everyone’s right to insist on payment in cash?
Those of us who rarely use buses would like to think that if we unexpectedly needed to make a bus journey, cash would be accepted. I occasionally use buses where I live in Northampton, and I’m a few years away from a free bus pass. I pay cash, and even get change if necessary. My dusty, rarely-used, Oyster Card is no use outside London, and I wouldn’t know what to do if all areas went cashless and I found myself in unfamiliar territory looking for a bus.
What’s the thinking behind the decision to go cashless? Are Transport for London (TfL) just trying to be young and trendy? It could be about saving time, but paying a bus driver cash needn’t take any more time than swiping an Oyster Card. In Birmingham, you put your cash into a machine and are instantly issued with a ticket. It’s very quick (though you have to make sure you have the right money as they don’t give change). It’s a radical idea, but if they really wanted to save time why not have someone walking through the bus with a mobile ticket machine? To combat technical malfunction the machine could be manually-operated by turning a handle. Perhaps they could give the ticket seller role a fancy name: “Bus Conductor” or “Clippie”, something like that.
I’d feel a bit aggrieved if I couldn’t pay cash for something if I chose to. Businesses can refuse to accept cheques and credit cards, but coins of the realm should be sacrosanct. Cash provides something tangible, a physical certainty. You know for sure you’ve paid, and you know someone has paid you. Notes and coins carry the Queen’s head: surely she’s good for the money?
On the day that buses stopped accepting cash I was hailed by the doorman at a West End hotel. He’d been reduced to stopping cabs several hundred yards away in a busier part of the street, asking drivers if they took credit cards. He’d unsuccessfully stopped six cabs before I came by with my card machine. Although please to see me, I was rather forced on the defensive when he told me my trade was full of dinosaurs and would die at the hands of Uber, and other virtual private hire companies who welcome credit cards. In a futile endeavour to defend my less progressive colleagues I muttered something about things happening slowly in the cab trade. Not that I’m particularly progressive; my main phone is plugged into the wall at home, and my “App” is the Yellow Pages.
Until recently, nothing much had happened in the cab trade for around three hundred years. We switched from horse-drawn to motorised vehicles a hundred years’ ago, and apart from competition from private hire from the 1960s onwards, little else has changed. Suddenly, technology is making us ask questions of how we go about our business. The hotel linkman was right: short-sightedness will get us nowhere. Customers can now order a taxi or private hire vehicle from any number of mobile phone Apps at the press of a button. It’s true that only a minority of customers ask to pay by credit card. Some foreign customers expect to be able to pay by card, but most British customers assume they can’t, so don’t bother asking. Since having my card reader installed three years ago I’d been averaging one a day. Recently, I’ve seen an increase. I would definitely lose out if I refused to take credit cards. A few Sundays ago I was crawling past the cab rank at Camden Town Station. I’d expect a nice little run to the West End from there. I saw a young female tourist ask the two cabs waiting if they took credit cards. Neither did, so they both lost a job. Had the second driver been able to accept cards he could have legitimately jumped the queue for an unexpected result. This isn’t an uncommon event. I’ve had hotel doormen load me up for Heathrow while cabs sat stewing on the rank. Most drivers like a “Flyer” because the job pays well in relation to the time it takes to complete. I’ve also been to Reading and Oxford on credit cards from station ranks (a distance job is known as a “Roader”. If the meter’s on £100 as you turn off the M4, you’re on a Roader).
I have some sympathy for the “Cash Only” wallahs though. Taking cards is a bit of a pain. It’s not nice fiddling with a swipe machine on Shaftesbury Avenue with buses swerving around you, and worrying about someone at TfL with an itchy camera-hand, waiting for you to exceed the two minutes allowed for loading. You need a working printer too, which isn’t compulsory. Then there’s the moral dilemma of having to charge someone an extra 10% for the privilege. That 10% doesn’t go to the driver, it goes to supplier of the card reader. With my system, I’m also debited £1 for every transaction. I don’t encourage paying by card, but I view it as a necessity.
Cashless payment is also socially contactless, particularly on the buses. No pleasantries are exchanged as you swipe your card on boarding. Driver and passenger barely acknowledge each other. As for taxis, I am on a computerised radio circuit and carry passengers on account. On account jobs the whole transition is completed by me pressing a button at the end of the journey. The passenger then walks off, often in silence, as on the buses. In the cashless society, human interaction is discouraged more and more. Even when tube station ticket offices are open, staffing levels can leave the message that walk-up customers with cash aren’t especially welcome. Banks virtually dare us to speak to their staff in person, as they steer us towards the cash machine. Cab drivers renew their licences remotely as we are not welcome at TfL’s offices. We queue at the Post Office instead. We used to queue at the Post Office to renew our tax disc, but most of us do that online now. We might gain a little convenience, but as a society we also lose something.
There can’t be many businesses left where cash is still king. Not everyone likes us being paid cash, particularly those who don’t make any money from us. I’m suspicious that the calls to make card acceptance mandatory in London cabs are prompted by The Man who wants to cream 10% from our earnings. I wouldn’t like to see card acceptance made mandatory, as I believe people have every right to insist on paying cash, or being paid in cash, if they feel strongly about it. The fact is, it’s becoming essential if you’re a full time cab driver. It’s a shame about the buses, but until the cab trade catches up I’m happy to jump the queue for Roaders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cash Only Cabs

(original edit of article for CallOver magazine).

New Technology, New Danger
In many respects, not a lot has happened in the past three hundred years in the world of sherbert dabbery. Then, all of a sudden, the changes are coming so thick and fast that it’s hard to keep up. On the positive side we have new cabs to look forward to over the next few years – including the exciting prospect of electric cabs. On the other side, new technology is challenging old certainties and making us question the ways we work. If we become familiar with new developments we can use technology to our advantage, but right now we seem to be going through an age of discontent. There have been major demonstrations over TfLs lack of support over ranks, and the licensing of Uber as a private hire operator. Now we have drivers leaving the taxi app Hailo after feeling betrayed.
Hailo was founded by three cab drivers. Its app attracted many drivers, many of whom had never been on a traditional radio circuit before, and possibly wary of their involvement with private hire. Hailo was going to be different: it was by and for taxi drivers. It would have nothing to do with mini-cabs. Then the leak came that Hailo had applied for a private hire operator’s licence. Suddenly, Hailo drivers were deleting their apps and queuing to have their logos removed.
Hailo were possibly panicked into it by the coming of the virtual private hire operator, Uber. Get Taxi are attempting to take on disgruntled Hailo drivers, vowing to hold out against a sell-out to private hire. It’ll be interesting to see how they develop.
Other radio circuits have private hire involvement to some degree. You take that on board when you consider joining. You have to weigh it all up with a business head on and make hard decisions. Will my involvement harm my own business or the taxi trade generally? Will subscribing to a circuit work for me? How much of myself am I prepared to sell? Whatever subs you pay, or however much commission you pay to be supplied with work, you need to remember that you are being sold work, not given it. All these companies exist to make money, they all want a piece of you. Many drivers work the old fashioned way by plying for hire on the street. They don’t want other people’s businesses contaminating their own. But being on a radio circuit or app gives another string to your bow. When things are quiet on the street, an unexpected account job can give you a boost. It might also give you a job going your way home if you request it.
I mostly work the streets, sometimes the ranks. My ComCab radio is always on as back-up. I’m not a great one for technology. My phone is plugged into the wall at home and my app is the Yellow pages. Through ComCab I can take credit cards. Not being able to take cards is short sighted, even if the advertorials are untrue in claiming that everyone wants to pay by credit card. Few people do, especially British people who have never expected to be able to pay for a cab ride on credit. I average one a day. But demand is increasing, and is becoming a necessity. You will lose out if you can’t take cards. I drove slowly – is there any other way? – past the rank at Camden Town Station last weekend. I assume people rank there expecting a job to the West End. A female tourist asked both cabs on the rank if they took cards. They didn’t, so they both lost a job. With card use still in its infancy, punters still have to walk along the ranks until they find a driver who takes cards. “Cash Only” notices help nobody. I’ve had card jobs to Reading and Oxford from Pancras, and hotel doormen have put Heathrow passengers in my cab while cash-cabs sat stewing on the rank.
As for Uber, they should never have been licensed as an operator. The meter issue is a smokescreen, it’s not important whether private hire are using a meter or not. But Uber are a virtual mini-cab supplier, connecting drivers with customers by mobile phone. They can’t be contacted through an office or landline. Their drivers are sat in cars plying for hire. I’m not sure if these drivers are “moonlighting” while being attached to genuine private hire companies, or whether they are independents going alone. It’s all very mysterious and anonymous, and we are right to be suspicious of the bold claims, sleek advertising, and the big business backing of Uber. We pay a lot of money to TfL and we are very highly regulated. Cab owners go through the cab licensing procedure every year, and we all chase around post offices every three years in order to renew our cab driver’s licence. We are afforded little contact with TfL and we don’t make huge demands. We ask for a few appropriately-sited ranks and some protection on matters of law such as this. TfL should have been ahead of the game and nipped Uber in the bud.
Interestingly, legitimately licensed private hire companies are as up in arms about Uber as we are. When a private hire spokesman spoke about the issue on LBC I agreed with every word. Concerned private hire drivers phoned in making it clear they are bound to be affected more than anyone. This is the only time in my lifetime where taxi and mini-cab drivers have agreed on something!

Leave a comment

Filed under Published Articles

Uber Alles 2 (a Cab Trade Dystopia)

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

No, nothing to do with Germany, England or the World Cup; but about competition in the cab trade. Not so long ago, Addison Lee’s John Griffin forced a discussion on the unthinkable. He had so much money and power that the right to use bus lanes actually went to court. John Griffin is a clever guy. He is a big fish, but was shrewd enough to sell up when even bigger predators entered the waters. Now we have corporations attempting to get a foothold in London’s private hire system who are even more powerful, and even less inclined to fair play.
Just for fun, then, how would you run a virtual private hire company? To start with, I would use my influence to get people to lobby on my behalf to ensure I’d get licensed, and stay licensed. Once I’d got the green light from TfL I would work on the corporate image. The Uber website is already slick and professional-looking; all I’d need next would be a fleet of gleaming cars, preferably in “taxi” black. Never mind a fifteen, or even ten-year old age limit on vehicles; my cars would be under four years of age. They would all boast air conditioning and would be kept spotless. Would there be anything to stop me from using Vitos, or any of the forthcoming van conversions? Or indeed a TX4. Is this what Uber meant in their Demo Day spoiler when they said they’d recruit taxi drivers?
A powerful private hire operator would swiftly pick up the baton from John Griffin and continue the fight to use bus lanes. Perhaps running fixed routes with limited stops would be a way in? They could run a set route from, say, Clapton to Victoria – perhaps dumping the less fashionable Clapton to Islington section should it prove unprofitable (cue readers writing in saying how fashionable and well-off Dalston is these days). The cars could carry a number 38 sticker on it for ease of identification. Drivers working the number 38 set route might favour a mini-bus-type effort, perhaps painted red. Maybe a double-decker if the service takes off. An N38 service could be introduced, with the mobile phone app calculating the night rate with consummate ease. They could extend the service to Heathrow, picking up at strategic points along the way.
Their friends in parliament would lobby for a fuel subsidy like the buses. With ten billion pounds, plus God knows how many dollars and Euros behind them, they could buy up TfL! They could turn Palestra into a mini-cab office and send taxi licensing to Sheffield, or Amsterdam. Or maybe San Francisco. They could keep taxis as a heritage service for tourists, like horse-drawn buggies in New York. Union Street would be shut off. It would just be a rank of glistening cars, their drivers glued to their phones ready to be hired. The cars could be kept in pristine condition by Boris using his water cannon as a car wash.
I paint a playful picture of a dystopian future, but we as a trade have been in a similar position before. When Welbeck Motors started the first mini-cab operation in the early 1960s, they flooded London with three or four hundred French Renault cars and undercut taxis on price. With money behind them they got tame politicians on board in order to ask questions in the House and lobby on their behalf. There were the now-familiar discussions and arguments over plying for hire. Over fifty years later we are still arguing over what plying for hire means. Technology has been used to explore loopholes in the law. Mobile phone apps have been around for years, but rulings have still not been clarified. We’re now in a position where TfL think it’s all right for private hire companies to take bookings over a mobile phone app in another country (and presumably pay tax abroad), while its drivers sit in their cars available for immediate hire.
We can’t rely on TfL to fight any illegal operations. Issue 320 of Taxi showed how TfL licensed a tent in an Essex field as a private hire operating centre and allowed mini-cabs to form an unofficial rank. Yellow Badger drivers have it hard enough as it is. They don’t need TfL allowing a large private hire company to steal their work. Imagine how they would cave in to the demands of ten billion pound corporations such as Uber.
Mini-cabs weren’t licensed at the time but Welbeck got around the law by using new technology: two-way radios. Apps are the two-way radios of our time. New technology is revolutionising the taxi and private hire trades, and asking difficult questions. We can’t keep up with it. TfL can’t keep up with it.
Threatened by new competition exploiting legal loopholes, the only way to compete is to ensure that we provide the better service. Customer feedback is a unique selling point of Uber. Maybe we shouldn’t even be too upset if fast-buck companies prove lax in their driver recruitment. If their drivers are substandard, they will get found out and the company will suffer. Welbeck Motors have been and gone, John Griffin has bailed out. We’re still here. We need to make sure we are the best, as the cream always rises to the top.

Leave a comment

Filed under Published Articles