(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.