Monthly Archives: April 2018

Strengths & Weaknesses

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

Things are still up in the air with the licensing of Uber, but whatever happens, others will come. Big companies will move in and attempt to take over existing taxi and private hire provision. They will push TfL’s weak licensing regime as far as they can, and will learn from the mistakes of Uber. We need to be ready for them.

The London taxi trade has traditionally comprised of individual driver-operators. Pre-Uber private hire consisted of a much bigger collection of individual drivers dependent on an operator. Many private hire operators were fairly small firms. Addison Lee were the big corporation in the mini-cab world. They pushed the boundaries and gave us grief, but they were nothing compared with Uber.

Whether private hire drivers are employees or self-employed is still a matter for the courts. London taxi drivers are definitely self-employed individuals running our own businesses. Some of us work full-time, others part-time. Many are semi-retired and just work a few hours a week. We have the freedom and flexibility to plan our work using the twenty-four-hour clock. We operate to strict policies, but no-one tells us what to do, unless we run up our licensing authority the wrong way, annoy the police, or fall foul of parking restriction (how times have changed though: having cameras trained on the yellow lines by the iron lung toilet at Regency Place smacks of George Orwell’s 1984).

Taxi and private hire used to be considered quite a mundane world. Some customers used mini-cabs, some used taxis. We largely had our own client bases, with some overlap. It then got political and wrapped up in complicated matters of law. It’s certainly keeping the lawyers busy.

We’ve never harnessed our collective power as much as we should have because we can’t agree on a political viewpoint. Some of us believe in negotiation, others in militant action. Hopefully we can reach more of a consensus in the near future.

Our individuality is both our strength and our weakness.  As individuals we have autonomy and flexibility. Businesses don’t like us because investors can’t move in to exploit us. Rapacious corporations can’t make a profit off our backs. This is why there was so much suspicion over having to enter into commercial deals with credit card companies. We were forced to sell out in a way.

Uber and their ilk cannot take over the whole London taxi trade. Only our licensing authority can screw us over, and we have reason to criticise the people who should be protecting us from the illegal activities of dubious corporations. We slogged our guts out on the Knowledge knowing that we had the sole right to ply for hire on the street. That was the deal. That right was enshrined in law. The arrival of powerful foreign corporations disrupted everything. TfL listened to the big people with money and power.

This is the disadvantage of being sole traders. We are fiercely independent, though we are vulnerable. We have the support of organisations such as the LTDA. We have some support in parliament too. What we don’t have is the backing of investors, lobbyists and people in high places to the extent that Uber have. We can’t be invested in. We don’t have government spooks putting pressure on our licensing body.

We are a collection of Individual men and women running our businesses for average pay, at best. As individual driver/operators we know that we wouldn’t get away with what Uber get away with. We wouldn’t be allowed to carry on operating after being labelled as not fit and proper as Uber were when they were denied a new licence. Uber are still operating despite being suspended.  And London-licensed drivers are still operating many miles away in other towns. TfL are trying to tighten up on private hire licensing because they know they made a mistake in licensing Uber. It’s likely they’ll have them back, even if they have to work to stricter rules.

I think the only answer is to keep on keeping on: to provide the best service we can as individuals. We should celebrate our status as free-thinking individuals, but also remember we are part of a bigger whole. With a positive mental attitude and by providing an outstanding service we can spread goodwill among the trade and our customers. By being negative and unhelpful, we do the opposite. It’s down to and every one of us to strive for excellence. We’ll never all be in the same trade organisation because of our diversity, but we all need to be in an organisation and stick to the rules. We need to keep our nose clean and a smile on our face.

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The Cycle of Change

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

As cab drivers we used to plod along happily unaffected by change. If someone wanted a cab they’d wave their hand or approach a rank. We took cash. There was no fiddling with buttons and worrying whether the customer’s credit card was going to work. There was no stress waiting for card clearance with a bus sat behind us. We all had a bit more road space and road systems were less complicated. Things were altogether less fraught out there. When I started out there were no cameras poised to photograph your wheel as it touched the hallowed yellow paint of a box junction. You could buy a new cab that didn’t need to be plugged in.

Many of these changes have happened in the last handful of years, and there are more changes coming to our streets. Changes not just to our working conditions, but to the wider environment we work in. Updated forms of transport are being offered to customers which could disrupt the status quo and provide headaches to the authorities who control the roads. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

In a recent article I mentioned motorised rickshaws. How they’ve allowed a rickshaw on the road with a motor I’ll never know. There are more cycles coming: hire cycles that don’t have to be returned to a docking station, but can be dumped anywhere. OBikes are four times cheaper than the Santander “Boris Bikes” and can be left wherever you like. If these cheaper bikes are allowed to continue it’ll lead the way for more unregulated cycle hire outfits to flood the market. It’ll make a dent in the profits of the current supplier, and create piles of cycles on our pavements for people to trip over. It’s a situation rather like the pedicabs. The authorities failed to clamp down on them and we now have pedicabs with motors riding down cycle lanes! TfL can’t really say anything as they allowed it to happen in the first place.

If TfL did put a stop to motorised rickshaws or discount dump-where-you-like hire bikes, could we say they were luddites resistant to progress and competition? Isn’t that what many people said about cab drivers when credit card acceptance became mandatory?

TfL are making big losses because fewer people want to ride their tube trains and buses. They still have the private hire money-spinner though. They’re trying to claw money out of private hire by drastically raising operator’s licensing fees. Large mini-cab operators have to find £30,000 for a five-year licence, where previously the fee was £2,826. The mini operators are fighting the case in court. They argue that TfL failed to conduct a considered and thorough consultation before raising fees, and didn’t carry out an independent regulatory impact assessment. I suggest that TfL and other authorities never consider the impact or carry out a proper consultation on anything. Look at what they’ve done to London’s roads with all their crazy re-modelling schemes and closures.

Whatever you feel about private hire you must admit that this is a huge rise (up to 5000% in some cases).            Many smaller private hire companies have gone to the wall, or have been eaten up by the larger ones.

None is larger than Uber of course. Maybe thirty-large for running an estimated 40,000 mini-cabs isn’t so excessive. Here’s a question:  if Uber are no longer officially licensed, are they exempt from the thirty grand operator’s fee?

TfL say higher fees are needed to fund extra compliance officers “who do a crucial job in driving up standards and ensuring passengers remain safe.”

TfL themselves could have done more to ensure passengers were safe by making sure DBS criminal record checks were made properly from the start. We recently read about the imprisonment of an Uber driver who was stopped for driving erratically in New North Road. Kareem Worthington’s car was searched and the police found white powder believed to be drugs, and a secreted knife. What struck me about this case was that he had been convicted of possession of a bladed article in 2011 and 2012, and had also been imprisoned for affray in 2014. Did none of these offences come up on his DBS record? Or did TfL decide he was a fit and proper person anyway? Either the current criminal record checking system is open to corruption, or the DBS report isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

We now have motorised chariots carrying families around the West End and getting in everyone’s way. Their drivers don’t need a licence, tax, insurance, vehicle inspection, fare chart; nor any DBS clearance. The old PCO would have run them out of town on a rail.

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