(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).
Trains, Planes, and Taxis
We’ve a lot to deal with in the London cab trade these days, but there are things going on up the M1 that’d make your hair curl. How about local taxis being kicked off Luton Airport in favour of London mini-cabs?
I’m shocked that the contract to supply transport at Luton Airport has been given over to private hire. Travellers wanting a taxi have to pre-book in Arrivals, and then walk around to the car park where their Addison Lee mini-cab will be waiting. Customers might not think anything is amiss when they’re directed to a line of shiny black vehicles looking vaguely like taxis, but they’d surely be surprised if they realised they were being picked up by a London mini-cab. Then again, no-one can read the car’s licensing identification through the tinted glass, and many unsuspecting tourists believe they’ve landed in London anyway.
Luton Airport sits in Bedfordshire and is my local airport. Despite the misleading name, “London – Luton Airport”, it has nothing to do with London. I have a green card in the back of my cab indicating an All London licence. If Luton Airport was really in London I could pick up there too – and at Stansted, Southend and Gatwick, come to that. It’s a marketing scam aimed at conning tourists into thinking they’re flying into the capital. Once in Luton, the airport can then broker a long and expensive ride into London, while making money from those actually providing the transport.
If you’ve ever dropped off at Luton Airport you’ll know that you’re charged for the privilege. I’m unhappy at being charged £2.50, but as I’ve possibly made a day’s money in an hour, the pain doesn’t hurt for long. It’s a bigger deal for the local drivers facing an uncertain future.
We can survive by cruising the streets looking for work. We can put on at any station rank, or use City and Heathrow Airports, if we’re so declined. Outside London, drivers rely on ranks, and even when they’re allowed to rank at major transport hubs they are often charged hundreds of pounds a year for the privilege. My objection to this is that local taxis provide an essential service to these stations and airports. It shouldn’t be reliant on payments and contracts. This isn’t Ronnie and Reggie. Taxi drivers should be encouraged to rank, and for free. Without an adequate supply of taxis you will get touts forming unofficial ranks around the corner, and private hire cars blocking up residential streets awaiting calls.
Airports and stations offer a snapshot of Rip-Off Britain. These shopping centres with transport facilities attached, cynically maximise their profits by selling outrageously priced facilities such as luggage weighing machines, trolley hire; and pay-toilets at certain stations. Then there’s the over-priced food and drink offered to captive consumers, and airport duty free shops more expensive than your local supermarket.
When I lived in Northampton, the cab drivers had to pay to use the station rank. The rank had a lengthy feeder and cabs were always available. Some drivers queued two hours before getting a job. The situation appears similar in Leighton Buzzard where I live now. The station and town centre ranks are well serviced, but business often appears slow. There’s only a small shopping centre, and there’s little in the way of a night-time economy. I suspect there are few opportunities for night men at the twenty-four hour MacDonald’s.
In London, we take for granted the facilities our out of town colleagues have to fight tooth and nail for – and have to fight to keep. I hear the cab rank serving Nottingham Train Station has been moved nearly 600 metres away; and many journeys will be made longer if a proposal to restrict taxis using bus gates is imposed. Demonstrations against these changes included elderly and disability groups. People take taxis expecting a door-to-door service, and because they presume they have access to roads that private vehicles haven’t.
What about here in London? When I was a Knowledge Examiner I saw many Yellow Badge drivers studying the All London Knowledge. I’d often ask how trade was in their sector. The answer was always the same, and I don’t think it was an over-use of the traditional “The Game’s Dead” saying. I’m sure things really were tough for Suburban drivers. We can see the queues at City Airport, and there are only so many events on at the O2 and ExCel to keep the local drivers occupied. Merton drivers surely can’t survive on Wimbledon Fortnight alone.
Will the situation at Luton have a knock-on effect in London? Trips to Luton Airport are rare, but they ‘re likely to be rarer still. If Addison Lee are picking up at Luton they are surely offering good deals going the other way. On holiday in Gambia I spoke to drivers who waited two days for a job. They were hoping for the big one: an all day tour. My equivalent is a trip to Luton on my way home. My next such trip might be some way off, but I’ll certainly appreciate it when it happens.
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.
(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).
As road space is reduced and the driving experience made more complex due to “Modernisation” schemes, we’re increasingly tempted to break the rules. Taking liberties used to be the speciality of cyclists, but now everyone’s at it.
Take Keep Left signs. These used to be sacrosanct to motorists, but you see motorcycles, cars, vans – yes, and taxis – all going around them to escape a queue of traffic. I’ve noticed it the most on the Cycle Superhighway on Victoria Embankment, but it also happens a lot on Eastcheap and Great Tower Street – where vehicles queue after trying to escape the congestion of the aforementioned superhighway.
A wag writing in a recent issue of Taxi suggested a dedicated Uber lane in order to segregate traffic in the name of safety. An excellent idea, but why not go further and remove the superfluous double white lines in the centre of the road and create a motorcycle lane for those who are in too much of a hurry to respect the rules of safety? If I remember the Highway Code correctly, you’re not allowed to cross or straddle double white lines; yet I often see vehicles doing U-turns or going around Keep Left bollards.
If this dangerous practice isn’t clamped down on, it’ll become as accepted as overtaking on the inside has become. Cyclists have always done it, though in fairness there isn’t always the space to do anything else, and they’re encouraged to do it because of cycle lanes. Now motorcyclists, those once proud knights of the road, are not only coming up your inside, but are then cutting in front of you to sit in the advance cycle space. Often they use cycle lanes too. As do buses on roads such as Fleet Street. It’s amazing the way these big red monsters manage to make faster progress than you in your cab, but watch how they manage to get from the junction of New Fetter Lane to Ludgate Circus by pushing their way into the cycle lane when the bus lane ends.
I don’t know when cyclists first adopted a militant attitude and opted out of the Highway Code. It was certainly going on when I was on the Knowledge in the mid-1980s. The police ignored it and the situation got worse. Where lawlessness by cyclists becomes common it becomes normalised: look at them turning right from Southampton Row into Theobalds Road and The Strand on to Waterloo Bridge. When things become normalised, the authorities often legitimise the practice. Contraflow cycle lanes have been set up on many roads where cyclists habitually ignored one-way workings. If a practice is legitimised no-one has to tell anyone off.
There are situations where the motorist is pressurised into doing something illegal. it’s illegal to drive in cycle lanes during the hours of their operation, but at many places it’s difficult not to. For instance if you’re waiting to turn into Fitzjohns Avenue from Arkwright Road you have to wait in the cycle lane or vehicles won’t be able to turn into your road.
With thousands of mini-cabs being licensed, many have set up unofficial ranks with impunity. When taxi drivers see nothing done about it, some decide to take liberties of their own. A minority decide to hang it up, or create their own ranks and feeders. Some anti-social cab drivers think it’s fine to obstruct a whole lane of Harrow Road to get into Paddington Station. Others obstruct Praed Street, Cavendish Square, and Great Russell Street. It’s bad enough swerving around ice cream vans without being obstructed by cabs queuing to get onto the British Museum rank.
The subject of moving out of the way for emergency vehicles has recently been covered in Taxi, and time to time it features on radio phone-ins. You’d have a heart of stone if you didn’t feel anxious when an ambulance comes screaming behind you, blues and twos blaring. You’re at the stop line with a red light in front of you, what do you do? Cross the line and risk a hefty fine and points on your licence? Resolutely stay put? Not moving will add to the anxiety: this could be a life or death situation where seconds count. You might also upset other motorists around you who are wondering how you could be so selfish and heartless. It’s a difficult one. The consensus on the last radio phone-in I listened to was that you should stay where you are and let the emergency vehicle find a way around. The NHS aren’t going to pay your fine and get your points restored. It might be different with the police as they can order you to move, but I wouldn’t bet on getting your fine paid and getting your points back.
Sometimes the authorities don’t play fair. The stretch of Waterloo Road alongside the station is virtually all bus stops and zigzags. It’s a big risk setting down or picking up there (I usually set down in Sandall Street). In the City, have you noticed the size of the zebra crossing on Sun Street? I thought all crossings would have to conform to a uniform size, but this one looks twice as big as all the others.
Many of us are wise to speed limits, but a 20mph limit is absurd in many cases. It’s hard to drive faster than 20mph in Islington because of the speed bumps.
Sometimes we’re under pressure to break the rules, and sometimes drivers take matters into their own hands. The authorities are not making it easy, and seem to encourage law-breaking with their road systems. True, I’ve been known to occasionally pull a right turn at the top of Poland or Spring Street, but I wouldn’t go around a Keep Left bollard for anybody. I think all we can do is act as safely as possible and keep the infringements to a minimum.
Following demos calling for a re-run of the EU Referendum, I’ve organised my own event on Saturday. My demand is that the England v Iceland game is replayed. The two-year run-in to the European Championships wasn’t long enough for the team to prepare adequately for such a monumental event. The campaign was badly flawed by inaccurate information, with so-called “experts” predicting an England win. In reality, this was cynical manipulation. The public were not in possession of the full facts (that England weren’t good enough).
The march will go from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square, where there will be a rally, and speeches by Sam Allardyce. A large turnout is expected. Avoid the area.