(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).
The downturn in trade over the last few years should have made us more commercially aware, leading us to consider how to run our businesses more efficiently. We now have at our disposal new ways of finding work, and new payment methods to utilise. But, we need to keep on our guard for those who could benefit at our cost. I now believe our licensing body did us a favour by forcing us to take credit cards, but by being so prescriptive, they’ve pushed us into commercial deals with providers of the necessary equipment. Drivers have also realised that they’ve been forced into advertising, for which we receive no benefits.
Several weeks’ ago I received a mysterious cardboard package through the post. It was from TfL, and contained various stickers and instructions on their use. I dutifully placed the stickers in the prescribed positions and thought no more about it. In the days and weeks that followed I heard drivers complaining about one particular sticker that we display on the partition behind our heads. It invites passengers to contact TfL should there be “any issues with paying”. There is already information on the fare table detailing how to complain, so this appears superfluous. Maybe there’s a touch of paranoia here, but this large sticker seems to be encouraging more complaints. Maybe it was a shot across the bows to any remaining members of the plastic bag brigade; but the sign could also have warned passengers that we could complain about them should they abuse us or refuse to pay. Or if they want to complain about the Cycle Superhighway.
Drivers also mentioned the three stickers we have displaying symbols of certain credit cards we can accept. Not all the cards we can accept are indicated on the stickers, so how were the four lucky companies chosen? Had they paid TfL to advertise? The next obvious question was: shouldn’t they be paying me for displaying the advertisement?! We seem to have unwittingly taken part in a product placement promotion! But we were never asked if we wanted to take part, and we receive no remuneration. Buses don’t carry advertisements for free: no-one does.
Some drivers choose to have advertising stickers covering the doors, or an all-over wrap. Advertising doesn’t always look nice, but it’s always been our decision. I don’t think the old Public Carriage Office would’ve approved those preposterous illuminated roof advertising boards, but TfL are fine with it; possibly because they charge drivers extra money for their annual inspection.
Before TfL took over taxi licensing, we were governed by the Metropolitan Police Public Carriage Office. The PCO could be bloody awkward, but there was a grudging respect for them as we knew they were helping to maintain London’s position as the best taxi service in the world. You knew that if you stepped out of line you’d be in big trouble, so most drivers didn’t step out of line (complaints received at modern-day TfL still largely involve those with previous).
The PCO were stringent, but didn’t involve themselves too much in how we run our businesses. TfL have become increasingly prescriptive as to how we operate. It’s good that we are now known to accept credit cards, but they’ve been over-prescriptive and unreasonable over the equipment we use and where we position it: for instance, where they forced many of us who had taken cards for years to have our card reader installed in the passenger compartment. And then there were the stickers.
It’s not a huge issue, but we should have been asked first. We sometimes feel that we are there to be exploited when it suits TfL. Taxi imagery was used to promote London during the Olympics, but we were quickly side-lined as flash new cars were brought in to convey VIPs around London. We weren’t wanted, so were barred from using the special Olympic fast-track lanes. The lanes remained empty most of the time, while everyone else sat in queues admiring the scenery. Ironically, the Olympic lanes were later converted into cycle lanes, with the same drastic consequences on traffic.
I never had any trouble with the PCO – even though I too was scared to take my own cab down for its annual inspection. I’ve not had any trouble with TfL either, but many older drivers would prefer to be licensed by the PCO. This is partly because the PCO licensed taxis and not private hire. If our licensing authority licenses both taxis and PH it needs to be scrupulously fair and transparent. TfL have a difficult job, but they have managed to alienate both parties. Taxi and PH drivers have both been let down by TfL’s licensing of a foreign-based tech company as a PH operator, and both parties are dismayed at the issuing of so many PH licences. Private Hire drivers are now upset over new regulations over topographical testing, English language proficiency, and buying and displaying proper insurance. Taxi drivers are unhappy that not enough is done to clear touts from the streets. There have been improvements here, but if PH licences are issued by the hundred every week, so should the appointment of enforcement officers. Selling PH licences is a money-spinner for TfL and its done untold harm to both industries. Older cabbies might not be aware that those on the Knowledge are now charged for the privilege too.
I‘m thinking of putting stickers on tube trains to advertise my unwanted CDs. Do you think I should ask TfL first?