(original edit of my article for Taxi magazine).
Know Your Enemy
In order to combat Uber, we first need to understand why people use them. After talking to friends about their transport use recently, I came away with a better understanding of the appeal of our competitors.
My research was undertaken at the Upminster TapRoom on a Saturday evening. In the streets outside there was a sea of yellow lights. The phrase: “It’s like Piccadilly Circus”, was apt. This is a suburban yellow badge area, but where many green badge drivers also live. Judging by the high number of empty cabs, it appeared to be an area where the cab trade are finding it hard going.
The two friends I spoke to admire the taxi trade, but more often than not, use Uber to get around. My Upminster friend can clearly find a cab straight away, so there’s no problem with supply. The only issue is cost when he needs to take a longer than average journey. He spoke of wanting to get home one night from Liverpool Street. He took an Uber as it only cost £30. He asked how much it would’ve cost in my cab. I said at least £70, but thinking about it later, it would be considerably more than that. How can they do it that cheaply? It must take the best part of an hour to get there; and when you factor in returning empty to the City, you’re talking £15 an hour. When Uber have taken their commission, it doesn’t leave the driver with much.
We all know drivers are lured in with ludicrous claims of high earnings. Driver dissatisfaction in the private hire sector has been well publicised, but Uber still manage to offer up an impressive brigade of drivers. Uber pride themselves on supplying car within three minutes, and my friend confirms they turn up quickly.
It all works by over-supply. It doesn’t matter to Uber if they have thousands of drivers parked up doing nothing. It only affects the drivers. The customer wants a car within three minutes, and Uber can arrange it. Driver turnover is high, with new arrivals coming to take the place of those who have left disillusioned. There’s always someone there to drive you to Essex for a pittance.
London is saturated by private hire. I’ve heard colleagues complain there are too many taxis too. But the number of taxi licences has hardly gone up in several decades. There aren’t too many cabs, it’s that the drivers are staying out longer to make their money up, or are working extra days (weekend work has plummeted over the last year or two). Taxi numbers are only kept down because of The Knowledge. Imagine if it was as easy to get a taxi licence as a private hire licence. If we over-supplied there would be a public enquiry. Imagine the rank space we’d need if our numbers were going up by several hundred every week like the minis. Never mind the unofficial Paddington rank starting at the Metropole; cabs would be queuing from Marble Arch. The public don’t notice the mini-cabs parked up, or circuiting around. London private hire cars don’t display a PH plate: they display a virtually unreadable licence sticker, further disguised by the tinted windows that taxis aren’t allowed to have.
The over- supply of PH licences means Uber can cover all of Central London, the suburbs, the airports, and any other town they fancy – current hotspots for London licensed Uber seem to be Southend and Brighton. Not every booked Uber car will turn up, and not every driver will know where they’re going. The driver might be funny about guide dogs, or gays; or he might throw you out if you criticise his choice of route (or his sat nav’s). Thirty quid all the way to Upminster though – the customer will take the risk and pocket a sizeable saving!
I reminded my friend that many of our drivers now use hailing apps, and he could book a taxi the same way as an Uber car. He knows that, but says it’s not that well publicised.
People now know about Uber’s tax avoidance. They know their drivers are being exploited. They have heard the term Uberisation, used to describe the gig economy, zero hours contracts, and the sham of self-employed status. We queue for work on actual ranks, but things are even worse on the virtual rank that the PH and zero-hours contractors are on.
The thing is, the bottom line is all that matters to many people. I’m no better. I use companies that dodge UK tax and treat their employees – or self-employed “partners” – abominably. I know I shouldn’t; but the price, convenience, and delivery times, overrides my conscience.
Ever since private hire started, the two services have appealed to a different clientele. Some people only use a mini-cab, some only use a taxi. There’s a floating middle, who use both. We’ll probably never win the custom of those who just look at the bottom line, but we could win over the middle ground. In the years when things were better we lost some of the middle ground while chasing the top end. The only way we can compete now is to appeal to everyone. We now all take credit cards, and our apps are getting known. We must provide a quality service at all times. We need to consider fixed price fares on occasions. A century or so ago, we appealed to the gentry because a gentleman could get into our cabs without taking his top hat off. In order to wear the trousers, we have to remember that gentlemen no longer wear top hats.