Monthly Archives: November 2017

Driving through a Winter Wonderland

(Original edit of my Christmas article for Taxi magazine).

Not long to go now. The Oxford Street Christmas lights have been on since November the 7th and Hyde Park has been turned into a winter wonderland. As the build-up starts, we cab drivers are starting to work the strangest, most unpredictable, month of the year.

Although January is my least favourite working month, December runs a close second. I enjoy Christmas itself, but working the run-up to the big day is always a pain. There are two main hazards: 1) Drunken passengers. 2) The traffic. Out of the two, it’s the traffic that I fear the most. I’ve worked quite a few Decembers in my time, but thankfully haven’t suffered too much from passengers who have had a few sherberts and have become difficult. I sometimes get caught out by the odd group of fired-up geezers on their way to annoy Arab families at the Winter Wonderland, but I’m usually OK. My anti-social passenger filter is set at paranoid mode all year round and not many get through the net, even in December. Then again, I don’t work at night. On the rare occasion I pick up account customers coming from an office party, they are as straight and buttoned-up as they are on any other day. No doubt they worry that we can get word to their boss if they create.

December starts well enough as there’s usually a fair bit of work around. Moving into the middle of the month things become fraught. This is the point where all the traffic-related problems you’ve read about in Taxi over the past eleven months all come together. Out of towners drive in to do their Christmas shopping and look at the lights, delivery vans park up everywhere oblivious to bus lane cameras, and there are stationary lines of buses caused by all of the above – and the perennial roadworks of course. We are invariably caught in heavy traffic with once a year riders in the back, counting coins in their hand as the meter ticks over each twenty pence increment. As the traffic grinds to a halt all we can do is apologise for London’s road schemes that have cost our customers more than they expected, and have caused us stress and embarrassment.

If you stick with it until Christmas Eve you’ll find things suddenly go dead in the last few days. The traffic lessens, but the work has gone. Every year we hope the work will reappear early in the new year. Sometimes it does.

We need to be security-minded at Christmas and not make ourselves targets for criminals. Some drivers leave phones, satnavs, and other valuables in their cabs while visiting a toilet, only to return to find the whole lot gone. We are targeted because we are thought of as carrying lots of cash. Permission to laugh: after paying for my daily diesel I often go home with less cash than I had in my float at the start of the day. Fortunately, the idea of taxis being money boxes on wheels is lessening now credit card acceptance is mandatory and we’re taking less cash. Taking your valuables with you on a break ensures you leave little of value apart from a few rolls of over-priced printer receipt paper (have the Monopolies Commission been made aware of the receipt roll scam?).

Maybe we should get into the spirit more and revive the tradition of putting up Christmas decorations in our cabs? A lot more drivers used to do so in the past, though I admit there are sound reasons for not putting tinsel up. It was a happy occasion when I gained my cab licence in 1988. I’d finished the Knowledge a couple of months previously, and I’d finally passed my taxi driving test on December 8th (at the 3rd attempt). I was asked to collect my badge a few hours later up at Penton Street. I had a spring in my step at Chapel Street Market when I bought some tinsel in anticipation of a very merry Christmas. The thing is, once Christmas is over it’s impossible to get rid of all the stray bits of tinsel. It’ll still be there next Christmas for sure. Had I never changed cabs I’d still be picking up bits of stray tinsel from 1988.

After Christmas it’s time to take stock and look forward to the year ahead. On a personal note, I ask myself if I can stop myself from making stupid mistakes this year? I’ve been improving, but in 2017 I still ended up on a speed awareness course in the summer, and I also copped a box junction violation after following a bus from Midland Road onto Euston Road.

When all the excitement of Christmas is over there’s the Kipper Season to endure. Soon, our working days will bring a bit more daylight, a bit more warmth, and hopefully a bit more income. The autumn of 2017 was encouraging, and a lot has happened this year that might help us improve things next year. Not least there is the ongoing saga of Uber. They’re not finished yet, but they are not going to be able to continue in the same way in the future. We received a lot of public support this year and for that we should be grateful. I’m sure there will be big changes and big challenges next year. We need to roll up our sleeves and make December the best we possibly can, then hit the new year running.  Have a great Christmas!

 

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Banged Up Abroad

Dear readers, should I ever be banged up in an Iranian jail, could somebody ask Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to help facilitate a prompt release? And please ask Mr Trump to comment on my plight on Twitter. My family will pay any officials off in Catalonian pesetas.

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What have the mini-cabs ever done for us?

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

With all the fuss over Uber, few commentators have stopped to ask how private hire started in the first place.

On the surface of it, all a taxi driver does is drive a customer from point A to point B for money.  A deceptively simple business plan, and one that has been exploited for many years by those unwilling to go through the effort of gaining a proper licence.

From the very beginning, London has led the way in safety, and has stipulated strict licensing rules.  As a result, your London cab driver will have had strict background checks, years of testing on his topographical knowledge, and will have passed an enhanced driving test.  The cabs are all 100% accessible and are built like tanks.  Fares are calculated by a meter that cannot be tampered with.  Taxi and private hire laws were developed over time in to keep the public safe.  They were generally adequate until the American invasion of Uber.

It’s the way of the world that where exists a successful service; someone will come along and undercut you.  Our trade was challenged in 1961 when Welbeck Motors emerged to muscle in on taxi work.  Welbeck flooded the streets with a fleet of red Renault Dauphines, and exploited technology by using two-way radios.  The company secured financial backing, and lobbied for the support of Members of Parliament to run a “mini-taxi” service.  They didn’t receive explicit approval, but they had sections of the press on their side.

There are clearly parallels with modern day Uber, where lower overheads and lax restrictions allowed mini-cab operators to undercut taxis and work to lower standards of safety and driver training.  Welbeck Motors and Uber both had money behind them which they used to influence politicians and the media.  I’d imagine that Welbeck were seen as trendy and as progressive as Uber when they arrived on our shores.

Although Welbeck Motors went into liquidation in 1965, other interested parties were waiting in the wings to exploit loopholes in stringent Hackney Carriage Laws and create a second tier cab service using two-way radio.

Drivers were recruited to mini-cab firms, typically operating out of doorways. They weren’t officially licensed, but so long as they were pre-booked and their journeys were logged they could operate legally.

Mini-cab drivers and vehicles were eventually licensed by the Public Carriage Office in 2000.  Some firms got their acts together and ran their businesses professionally, while other ones folded.

In London, there have been no restrictions on the number of private hire licenses issued.   In the case of taxis, numbers have risen very slowly over the years, kept down naturally by the Knowledge process.  Suburban taxi licences were suspended for a while due to over-supply, but private hire licences have continued to be issued in huge numbers – despite over-supply!  In order to service the Uber organisation, by 2016, several hundred licences a week were being issued (licensing has slowed in 2017).

If hundreds of taxi licences were being issued each week, there would be angry talk about congestion and pollution.  Many thousands of extra taxis on the streets would be noticed.    You barely notice mini-cabs.  London mini-cabs don’t have plates and roof signs as in the rest of the country.  Signage is pretty low key if it exists at all, and the private hire licence sticker on the back window is virtually unreadable.  It’s often disguised further by the tinted glass that TfL allow private hire vehicles to have, but not taxis.

The private hire industry can always undercut taxis on price because of lower running costs.  London taxis have had to be purpose-built in order to conform to stringent safety standards – and the famous twenty-five foot turning circle (I’m unsure if this applied in the days of horse-drawn cabs).  Crucially, private hire drivers enjoy a free reign in their choice of vehicle – and they don’t need to spend £55,600 on a new vehicle.

Uber showed that through over-supply they could promise a car within a few minutes of booking.  Until Uber’s business model was discussed in the wake of TfL re-licensing refusal, the general public didn’t know how it was done.  People now know how badly their drivers are treated.  They’ve heard about the dubious criminal records checks, and the covering-up of alleged sexual attacks.  People know that foreign operators can choose where to pay their tax, and this is not going to be in the UK.

Uber’s drivers don’t have to reach the earning targets that lured them in as they can claim benefits to top-up their income.  The drivers are also now aware of the con.  They are dependent on the provision of work, but they have been classed as self-employed.  If Uber lose their appeal against the ruling that their drivers are actually employees it could cost the operator tens of thousands of pounds just to pay National Insurance for 50,000 of its British drivers.  This is just one of Uber’s current problems.

Traditional private hire companies tick over, but Uber over-reached themselves.  Like Welbeck at the start of the 1960s, Uber are finding out that short cuts don’t work.  They have failed to retain the goodwill of their drivers, or the confidence of the public.  It’s only a matter of time before its investors wash the toxins off their hands and move on to the Next Big Thing.

 

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