Monthly Archives: July 2016

Race to the Bottom

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

We keep hearing calls to make taxi fares cheaper in order to compete with private hire.  This is not just from the public, but from those within our own ranks.  Is this a good idea, or is it just giving in to the race to the bottom?

Of course, we couldn’t bring fares down even if we wanted to:  they are fixed every year and we cannot change that.  However, many of us are on radio circuits or use apps to find work, and we’re often encouraged to accept cut-price work.  Indeed, I’ve seen cabs driving around announcing themselves as “Fixed Price Black Cabs.”  Sometimes discounted fares are worth doing, sometimes they’re not.  This year I’ve given big discounts on street jobs to Luton and Stansted airports, and have instantly turned a bad day into a good day without missing the “lost” money.  If things are quiet I’m happy to accept fixed price account jobs from the City to Paddington for £20, even though the meter is likely to read £25.  The last time I went to City Airport from EC4 the meter said £49.  I’d already accepted the fixed price of £33, and the deal isn’t so good in this case, particularly as it’s a long and tortuous drive back to Central London.  It’s still worth doing on a slow day though.

The argument sometimes used when suggesting a lowering of fares is that many goods and services have gone down in price due to technological progress and the global economy.  True, electrical goods and clothes can be produced cheaper than they used to be, but the service taxi drivers provide hasn’t become easier to produce.  Technology has made it easier for us to find work, but it hasn’t made the driving any easier.  The main factor making our job harder is an increase in traffic and a reduction in road space.  This also works against us by putting potential customers off.

The expensive vehicle that we drive is unlikely to become cheaper, and running costs are rising all the time.  Diesel is artificially expensive due to taxes.  Fuel prices were lower in the New Year, but they’re creeping up again.  We might enjoy some fuel savings when we all go electric, but that seems a few years’ away, and I’ll believe it when I see it (if we ever switch to electric, the government will claw back the lost diesel revenue somehow, don’t worry about that).

Public transport providers cause outrage every year when they raise their fares.  They‘d say they can’t run their services on less money.  Neither can we.  Only selected goods and services have gone down in price: I’ve seen no reduction in my gas, electricity, water and council tax.  It’s still a major outlay when I need to visit the dentist, optician or vet.  Should I ever find myself on a serious charge at the Bailey I’d be surprised if I found lawyers had lowered their fees in order to compete with each other.

The minis have held demonstrations this year.  It’s bad that Uber have lowered their fares and are charging their drivers more commission, but it’s not altogether unexpected.  Customers are drawn in with loss-leading fares, then become liable to surge pricing at a later date. Their drivers are similarly ripped off.  If private hire drivers are prepared to drive to Gatwick for £50 they can’t be making much money.

Private hire can offer even lower fares because they don’t have our overheads.  Traditional private hire can take work from us as they are more likely to guarantee a price.  Private hire fares are low because of worker exploitation.  Uber and Addison Lee have reduced their fares, and should their drivers complain they are shown the door. There’s a revolving door of new drivers from home and abroad, lured in by promises of streets paved with gold.

Those with a conscience appreciate the human element in transportation and sympathise with the plight of the exploited.  You can’t make a taxi or private hire service cheaper without making things worse for the driver.  Private hire and taxi demos remind the public that cheap transport comes at a cost:  namely disgruntled, overworked drivers.  A tired driver is potentially a dangerous driver.  Many people just want to get from A to B as cheaply as possible, but they need to be reminded that many drivers are close to poverty and need to top up their income with benefits.  This is encouraged by a fat cat company that pays most of its tax abroad.  Big companies compete by exploiting the global economy.  Toiling in a third world sweatshop is little different from sweating in the driver’s seat in a Prius in the backstreets of London.

We can’t compete with private hire on price, only quality of service.  The price differential reflects the investment our drivers have put in to gain their badges, the stricter regulations, and the higher running costs of our vehicles.

I accept discounted fares if they suit me at that particular time, but I won’t be pressing for a fare reduction:  our fares have stagnated while public transport fares have risen.  The taxi remains the most expensive road transport option – after pedicabs.  To justify this, we need to make sure we provide a premium service.  We need to ensure we are presentable and helpful.  Over the summer work levels have increased.  I hope this doesn’t lead to more job refusals.  Scruffy, unhelpful drivers, refusing to go south is an image we earned through complacency when things were better.  We can’t ever become complacent again.  Let’s work to maintain the gold standard.  Private hire are eating each other in a race to bottom.  Let’s not join their race.

Copyright:  Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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For Richer For Poorer

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine.  I like to cover the political spectrum, but this one would make Jeremy Corbyn proud):

During the EU referendum debate we kept hearing that the UK has the fifth biggest economy in the world.  I find that hard to believe as I watch hospitals closing, the police and fire service cut, mental health care slashed, and a myriad of other austerity measures brought in. We’re actually living in a world where department stores are sold for a pound.  If this is the fifth biggest economy, God knows what the fifth poorest economy is like.  And we don’t hear about the recession any more:  surely it’s not really over?

During our work we are uniquely placed to observe society from all angles.  Driving along Brompton Road and around Sloane Square we can see the wealth, but we can see it is in the hands of a lucky few.  We work here, but we know we don’t belong to this world.  Our world is where the NHS is overstretched, medical waiting times are increasing, and there’s fierce competition for school places.  Transport workers and firefighters have been on strike, and even junior doctors taken industrial action after changes to contracts were forced on them.  We’ve seen soldiers at Chelsea barracks moved to less fashionable Woolwich, far from Central London, and their barracks converted into housing and shopping.  Police and fire stations are sold off and boarded up, only to return later as blocks of luxury flats, ironically named something like “The Old Station.”  This is London’s Prime Residential Market, where those with money can insulate themselves from the things that affect the majority of us by going private.  Things are different where ordinary working people live.  I wouldn’t even know where to buy a yacht or a pot of caviar outside Central London (if caviar comes in pots; I’m more a fish & chips man myself).

I’m not wealthy, nor are any of my family or friends.  Most people I know have become less well-off and less secure over the past few years.  Wages have not kept up with inflation and temporary contracts have become the norm.  Self-employment status scams improve the employment figures, but zero-hours contracts equal zero security.

In transport, there’s only gloom and doom.  There’s gridlock and pollution on the roads, unrest on the tubes, and overcrowded trains (people will need to start sitting on the roof if things get much worse).  In our immediate world of private transport there’s a race to the bottom.  It’s not just taxi drivers who are feeling the pinch: mini-cab demos are almost unheard of, but Uber and Addison Lee drivers have recently taken to the streets to express their concerns over reduced pay and worsening conditions.

Sometimes it appears that things aren’t so austere. TfL seem to have the resources to spend billions on crazy modernisation schemes (that’s road narrowing to you and I).  The police still sit on motorway bridges all day and film people, and you still see pairs of them on horses clip-clopping around central London smiling for tourists’ cameras.  They’re tied up every weekend looking after people on demos and marches, and coning off the streets.  I don’t know who sanctions all these closures.  It’s probably not the Police’s fault they’re sitting in vans all day watching people shouting and waving placards.  No wonder the Police stations are never open to hand in lost property.

We read in Taxi recently how the LTDA was threatened by Uber, TfL and the Police for publicising sex attack statistics by private hire drivers.  TfL and the Police said they don’t have the resources to tackle crime by holders of private hire licences, but resources are still there to hassle taxi trade magazines.  Over 400 TfL employees are on over 100K year.  Nice work if you can get it.  TfL and the Police seem more interested in political correctness and PR than preventing crime. The Police objected to the LTDAs use of their trademark logo.  Are they a force, a service; or merely a brand these days?

The money is clearly there in the world’s fifth biggest economy, but much of it seems to be in the hands of a minority.  Public services are cut and the proceeds seem to be wasted on madcap road schemes, policing events that bring cities to a standstill, and protecting those in power against negative PR.

In London, we have a new mayor:  maybe he can redress the balance?  In the country as a whole we have to hope that the economy improves, so that we can all enjoy a bit more security.  I know I’ll probably never have enough money for a yacht, but a new cab would be nice, and a few more customers would help things along.

Blimey, that was about as left wing as I’ve ever sounded – eat your heart out Red ken!  Calls for hanging and flogging will be resumed in due course.

Copyright:  Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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Scary Images from a Seventies Past

No. 1

1970s Teacher

BRITAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-LABOUR

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Dangerous Roads

 

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

Dangerous Roads

The long-awaited road modernisation system around Blackfriars is now open – complicated isn’t it?  Thankfully, we’re sitting in the system for long enough to take it all in:  join the queue on Blackfriars Bridge and marvel at the complex arrangement of different vehicle and cycle lanes, traffic lights that apply to different road users at different times; then plan what lane to get in before you get stuck behind a stationary tipper truck.

Exchanging views on social media I found I wasn’t alone in finding the cycle superhighway system confusing.  Vehicles and cycles come from different directions, and pedestrians crossing at a stationary line of motor vehicles don’t always realise that the cycles have right of way and are about to speed into their path.  There are some sharp turns available to motorists, and these turns are only safe if the cyclists obey their stop lights.  It’ll be fun when the traffic lights fail at these junctions.  I also wonder how people might make sense of all the different lanes when there’s a covering of snow.  You won’t be able to make out the cycle lanes, and even the kerbs could be submerged.

As I write this, there is no access to Tudor Street from New Bridge Street.  You have to use Bridewell Place to access the Tudor Street area: a pointless manoeuvre, and yet another restriction that makes people’s journeys longer.  They’ve put a huge concrete block stopping you access the Embankment at the bottom of Temple Avenue.  They stopped the left turn a long time ago; now they’ve stopped the right turn too.  There’s a new unrestricted turn available from Carmelite Street, but for a few weeks there were no warning signs detailing a closure and an alternative route.  This behaviour annoys everyone, and ensures our noisy, dangerous, and polluting, vehicles are on the road longer.

Following a sat nav on unfamiliar roads can be stressful and fraught with danger in big towns, and some road systems only exist in London, or in the bigger cities (a northerner I took to Pancras once asked me what double red lines meant.  A fair question; and more sensible than my vague answer that they are worse than double yellows).

I believe all roads with contra-flow cycle lanes are hazardous.  Do you always remember to look left and right when you cross Royal College Street from Pratt Street?  I’m sure you do, as we know what’s coming; but what if you’ve just driven down from outside London and you’re less familiar the complexities of Camden Town’s one way system?  All manner of dangers are lurking behind those plant pots in Royal College Street.

More and more you notice parts of roads given over to contra-flow cycle lanes.  Have you noticed the cycle lane on the east side of Chancery Lane?  (obliterated by scaffolding lorries at the weekend).  Maybe you’ve been surprised by a cycle emerging as you turn from Malet Street into Montague Place?   In the event of a collision, m’lud will point out in court that there is a warning sign.  But if you’re not familiar with the area, you might not think to stop and peer around to your right in case a cycle is coming into what appears to be a quiet one way street.

My favourite is the short eastbound section of Jermyn Street.  As far as most people are concerned it’s a fairly narrow one-way street.  There’s a sign at the junction of Haymarket indicating it’s no entry apart for cycles, but there are no markings indicating a cycle lane, and there are no clues that a cycle – or rickshaw – might be speeding towards you as you turn in from Regent Street.  Amazingly, buses sometimes use this street.  Another accident waiting to happen.

Some roads don’t need cycle lanes to make them hazardous.  You might not confidently know which bit of Exhibition Road is for vehicles and which bit is for pedestrians.  How far you can drive up the western side before you hit a bench or a rank of Boris Bikes?  Is the junction at Prince Consort Road a roundabout?  There are no definite markings, just vague circular paving.  There’s no roundabout sign.  Everyone treats it like a roundabout, but maybe it’s not?  Maybe we don’t need to give way to traffic on the right?  An interesting query for the insurance companies, I think.

Road space has been reduced all over London, yet demand continues to increase.  Driving has become harder work; not just because of traffic levels, but because of such complex systems.  It would be more helpful to simplify rather than make more complex.  Vauxhall junction has always been nasty and I dread going there.  The re-modelling was probably well-meaning, but the junction’s complexity doesn’t make it any safer.

Sometimes junctions are hazardous purely because the arrangement of traffic lights isn’t what you are familiar with.  The junction of Marlborough Road and The Mall is less busy and less complex than Blackfriars, but we’ve all seen cars speeding through a light that wasn’t meant for them.

However familiar we think we are with the roads, we still have to pay attention to signs and to the increasingly complicated arrangement of traffic signals.  Oh, and look out for pedestrian only areas too:  I recently copped a PCN for tuning around in Petty Wales.  If you don’t know Petty Wales, look it up!  Be careful out there!

 

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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