(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!