The Wild West End

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I recently read about the rickshaw rider who tried to charge a Dutch tourist £600 for a thirty-minute journey.  Thankfully, the tourist stood firm and argued back.  The rider was filmed by passers-by and consequently shamed in the modern way.  There must be scores of similar rickshaw scams going on that are never discovered, where the victims pay up out of embarrassment of having seemingly agreed to the fare.

I’m normally tucked up in bed before midnight, but London’s night time economy brings out all the chancers offering to drive people home:  rickshaw rip-off merchants, rogue mini cab drivers, dodgy app-based car providers, and the myriad of blokes who chance their arm with unlicensed cars.  Most people get home, eventually, but you’d expect the public to be afforded more protection against the plethora of dubious hire and reward transport providers. The response is that nothing can be done about the rickshaws, or the issuing of hundreds of private hire licences every week in order to service app-based car providers operating in grey areas of the law.  Add madcap road systems that slow everything down, and the result is a transport system run like the wild west, in a city resembling a third world capital.

I’m sure visitors to London are aware that we live to very strict regulations:  do anything illegal and you’ll be caught on camera.  They are everywhere, watching your every move.  Visitors also expect our transport laws to be strict and enforceable.  Buses, trains and taxis, are regulated to an inch of their lives – down to what colour interior door handles are.  Thankfully, the things that go on in taxis in other countries doesn’t go on here.  Visitors know they can trust us.  But lower down the transport food chain, the regulations are slacker and the regulations blurred.  Private hire cars are allowed to obscure their licence stickers with tinted windows while pretending to be limousines.  Our friends, the rickshaw riders give the impression they are officially endorsed by way of phoney licence plates and fare tables.  The fare chart gives the impression of an official pricing structure, and the rider can claim that having it on display constitutes an agreement.  The rider’s hire and reward operation doesn’t need a licence, so there’s nobody to complain to.

London has many of the attributes of a third world capital.  There’s the unhealthy divide between rich and poor, where the less well-off are being socially cleansed.  On the transport front, there are badly congested roads full of pot holes, nonsensical traffic systems, and seemingly pointless road works that last for years.  Pancras Road between King’s Cross and St Pancras resembles Mumbai on a bad day with its triple parking free-for-all.  It’s all contributing to authentic third world pollution.

I rarely see the Police in Bedfordshire where I live, but there are enough of them in London to mount checkpoints and saunter around with machine guns.  They don’t control the traffic when the chips are down, like in a real third world capital.  Other groups have taken on the role of traffic management; such as the paramilitary builders who operate like lollypop ladies when they want their contractors’ lorries to pull out without waiting their turn.

Those who drive themselves around are fair game to modern day highwaymen; those legally-endorsed pirates who fine and photograph motorists who accidently get caught with a wheel touching a box junction.

There’s not a lot I feel I can do about it all as I watch yet another madcap traffic scheme add to the frustration of driving in London.  All I feel I can do is write about it, and contribute to consultations.  I’ll carry on driving my diesel-powered filth cart until a cleaner and cheaper alternative becomes available.

The city in which I work is changing rapidly.  Things are more difficult and uncertain.  London residents will have noticed that the old certainties have gone.  Taxis have always been seen as expensive, but reliable.  The cheaper alternative was to take your chances with a mini-cab.  Every man and his dog now wants to work as a cab driver and it’s easier than ever – maybe we should be flattered that so many people want to do our job?  Recent developments in private hire licensing has resulted in many thousand more private hire licences being issued, and a blurring of the boundaries.  Over the new year period, people using an app-based private hire service were shocked to find hundreds of pounds taken from their credit card accounts by way of surge pricing.  The operator would say they didn’t read the small print, so there’s nothing they can do about it.

Is the body who are meant to be controlling everything that happens on the streets taking enough responsibility?  Local authorities need to be reined in and prevented from implementing complex road systems that slow the traffic down and make driving more difficult. Driving should be made easier, not harder.  Traffic schemes that look good on paper, don’t always work in practice.

Rickshaws aren’t normally motorised, but they are vehicles.  Vehicles shouldn’t be obstructing junctions and forcing buses out of bus lanes so they can rank up.  If they are working for hire and reward they should be subject to licensing laws.  The app-based providers have exploited loopholes in order to ply for immediate hire by phone.  The race to the bottom by way of cheaper fares isn’t healthy for anyone.  Safety is compromised for both drivers and customers, as drivers are forced to work longer hours to make a living.  Today’s society is in many ways over protective, but at the lower rungs of hire and reward transport, it’s still a free-for-all.

Reports of tourists being ripped off aren’t good for the reputation of London, and particularly for those of us who depend on tourism.  London’s streets are becoming like the wild west, though the sheriff is nowhere to be seen.

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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