Monthly Archives: September 2018

Are You Uber in Disguise?

(Original medit of article for Taxi magazine).

I was dismayed to hear that a case of touting in Reading by a TfL licensed minicab was thrown out. Part of the reason given was that the car wasn’t easily identified as a private hire vehicle because nobody could read the TfL licence roundel on the back window.

There are around 24,000 taxi drivers competing with around 114,000 private hire drivers (21,000 actual taxis and 87,000 PH vehicles). We’re easily identified, our competitors are not. Most London-licensed private hire vehicles carry no identifying marks, apart from the little sticker on the back window. The sticker might as well be an Aero wrapper. You won’t notice it on a tinted window unless you are two feet away from the vehicle, and you won’t be able to read the licence number until you are at point-blank range. There are no PH plates or roof signs, by law.

With all the talk about congestion and pollution, I wonder if TfL are disguising their licenced private hire cars on purpose. Are they now ashamed of their unrestricted private hire licensing policy? I think so. I think if the public noticed that nearly every “private” car in Central London was actually a minicab they’d raise a fuss and force TfL to do something.

There are currently 87,000 minicabs exempt from the Congestion Charge. It’s good that they are considering making PH drivers pay the charge, but I’m sceptical it’ll ever happen anytime soon. Like the various Uber issues, there will be years of legal wrangling and court appeals. By the time the charge is brought in most vehicles will be electric and exempt anyway. Or the whole taxi and private hire trade will be run by self-driving pods.

The New York licensing authority is planning to cap the number of Uber cars licensed. TfL keep saying they need an Act of Parliament before they can cap private hire licensing. A while back, Mayor Khan claimed to have tried to get the government to change its unlimited licensing policy, but didn’t hear back. We now hear he’s written to the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling. Let’s hope he put a stamp on the letter this time.

Note that the figures above relate to the whole of the Greater London boroughs. Taxi licences also include yellow badge drivers licensed only for certain outer-London boroughs. Drivers licensed in Barnet and Enfield and Hounslow are not allowed to pick up in inner-London’s green badge area. Minicabs can operate all over London – and semi-legally, it seems, in any other towns of the driver’s choosing, such as in Brighton, Southend and at Gatwick Airport. Uber even tried to draw up their own borders!

The issue of cross-border hiring surely affects provincial towns more than it affects London: it seems London-licenced private hire cars are running riot in the provinces. Maybe there should be private hire sectors, such as the taxis’ Suburban sectors?

TfL have tightened up a bit on its licensing requirements, but there’s still a long way to go before adequate standards are put in place. TfL are still one of the country’s go-to authorities for a quickie PH licence, with few questions asked, and inadequate checking of criminal records and insurance.

Of course, we go back to the identification problem: nobody can identify TfL private hire vehicles. The issue of identification will remain should cross border hiring be curtailed. And it seems while identification is an issue, enforcement will remain impossible.

Private hire drivers disguise themselves pretty well too. “A Minicab driver? Who me?” However smartly Uber drivers dress, they’re still minicab drivers, and they’re still driving for a minicab company. The smart, sombre, attire is worn to confuse us: are they over-dressed minicab drivers, or MI5 operatives? TfL love black suits. As a Knowledge Examiner I sometimes had to ask the Men in Black to help me access the Palestra building when my swipe card stopped working. Everyone’s a terrorist suspect at TfL, and everyone who works on the front line carries a serious demeanour. I find it amusing now I’m no longer there, but it must have scared the life out of the Knowledge Boys and Girls who used to go up to Palestra for an Appearance. Personally, I don’t trust anyone who wears a black suit in the daytime!

I presume TfL also license tour buses? After a weekend of being caught behind buses blocking up Ludgate Hill and Buckingham Palace Road I wondered what London would look like if tour bus numbers ever reach 113,000?

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Viz Letters

While my forthcoming book is in the hands of the designers I thought I’d re-print all the Letters & Top Tips that I sent to Viz comic in 2016. As far as I know, only one letter made it to the magazine; the one about schoolkids sending photos of their privates to each others phones (not my strongest, in my opinion).

“Letterbocks”

My wife and I have just returned from the worst dining experiences of our lives, at the award-winning Clink Restaurant at Brixton Prison. Our waiter kept asking if we had any “snout” for him. A most unsavoury character. He later followed me into the lavs and asked if I would be his girlfriend. Very unsettling.

Mr L. Buzzard, Bedfordshire.

 

I’m dismayed that in these times of austerity the NHS are still performing heart operations. Money should only be granted for essential work, such as making girls’ knockers bigger. Has the country gone mad?

Mr L. Buzzard, Bedfordshire.

 

Some people think using bad language in front of kids sets a bad example.  Bollocks.  Our European cousins swear less than us because they are exposed to filth at a younger age.  French and Spanish children are encouraged to use a little watered-down profanity at the dinner table, and grow up to swear responsibly.

Professor Cock, Department of Swearing, Oxford University.

 

“Money Can’t Buy me Love” sang the Beatles.  What rot!  I bought a blinding prostitute for fifty quid last night. She said she really likes me, and I can see her again whenever I want at her bedsit by the station.  Happy Days!

 

“Things Can Only Get Better” sang D:Ream in 1993.  How very true.  I’ve just been informed by unsolicited email that a mystery benefactor has left me two million pounds in his will.  I just need to send a small administration fee to a solicitor in Nigeria tomorrow to finalise the release of funds.  I’ve sold my car for peanuts to get the money to pay the fee and put a deposit on a new Porsche.  I’ve told the council to take their crappy bedsit back, and this afternoon I shall tell my boss where to stick his job.  I aim to take a once-in-a-lifetime Caribbean cruise next month. Aye, I’m a man of leisure from now on!…

 

The kids of today have it easy.  Teenagers of my generation had to interact face to face with classmates they fancied.  These days they just email photos of their private parts and wait for a response. It seems lazy to me, but I suppose it’s progress of sorts.

 

After observing lorries delivering bags of ice to fancy West End bars, I tried making my own.  After a few weeks experimenting I found I could make my own “ice” by putting tap water in the freezer.  My friends think it’s as good as the real thing – and it’s free!

 

Councils should do more for those who find carrying their mobile phone everywhere inconvenient.  They should provide phones for public use, and house them in booths situated in prominent locations. They could paint them red for ease of viewing, and give the booths a snappy name, such as “phone box.”  I really think they could catch on.

 

“Top Tips”

Avoid scandalous car parking charges in London. You can park all day unmolested by simply by enclosing your car with orange barriers next to road works.  Barriers can be hired from any builders’ yard, and delivered by lorry the same day.

Mr L. Buzzard, That London.

 

MOTORCYCLISTS.  In order to gain attention, why not sit at the traffic lights revving your engine needlessly?  For maximum irritation, wait in the advance cycle zone in order to obstruct cyclists and intimidate pedestrians.

Mr L. Buzzard, Bedfordshire.

 

LONDON TOUR BUS DRIVERS.  Why not drive 5mph slower than regular buses?  This way, your passengers can experience a traditional British traffic jam, while watching a long line of irate drivers queuing behind you.  Make sure your passengers wave as they take their photos.

 

Make your neighbours think you have a high level job with the government by ostentatiously looking under your car every morning with a mirror on a stick.

Mr L. Buzzard, Bedfordshire.

 

Make people think you’ve just returned from an expensive long-haul holiday.  Just wrap an old suitcase in cling film and wheel it around town.

 

Eat your heart out, William Shakespeare!

 

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Knowledge Promotion

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

 

I don’t spend much time surfing the net. I prefer to read proper magazines, made of paper. It was a friend who alerted me to the adverts promoting a career in the London taxi trade. He’d seen the Knowledge promotion on Instagram (I’m not exactly sure what Instagram is; like Teletext for young people, I should imagine).

I completed the Knowledge nearly thirty years ago, in December 1988. A week or so after getting my badge, an old-hand asked me how long it took me to pass the Knowledge and join the trade. He then helpfully informed me it would take me longer than 3 ½ years to get out of it. No doubt he’d had drivers telling him the same in the 1950s and felt the need to pass on this priceless nugget of information. I was earning good money and had more work than I could handle. I laughed off his advice and have always resisted the temptation to give the “Game’s Dead” treatment to a Knowledge Boy.

I did eventually leave the trade to do other things, and I foolishly allowed my cab licence to lapse. By 2001 I was a careers adviser. Nine years on and I was fed up of it: I was disillusioned with the politics, and felt the need to run my own show again. Although I was living seventy miles out in Northampton I started the Knowledge again. I reckoned it would take me about two years. After four months I was invited to a re-test. I didn’t know such a thing existed. I felt ill-prepared, but I somehow showed enough to gain a new licence after one mammoth Appearance with the legendary Mr Wilkin.

Work levels weren’t as high as they were on my return to the trade in 2010, but I couldn’t complain. Things are certainly tougher now and we can’t be certain that things will improve. New applicants need to know they are taking on something worthwhile. This isn’t a career where you can dip your toe in to test the water; you have to commit to around three years of hard, headbanging study, and a series of traumatic exams. Only then can you try it and see if you like it.

Fewer than 700 students are currently studying the Knowledge – nearly an 80% reduction in just a few years. More drivers are retiring than joining the trade. I’ve said a few times within these pages that driver numbers need to be maintained so we have collective power. We need to be part of a thriving trade, constantly topped up with new blood when older drivers leave, or go to the great cab rank in the sky. We need enough drivers to service the radio circuits and app-based hailing services. The circuits also need to grow. If we fail to do so, the circuits will lose accounts. Think also of the Knowledge schools, garages, and other supporting services.

A delicate balance is needed between under and over-supply. If the Knowledge was easy, the trade would be flooded. I wouldn’t want to be part of a trade that’s over-subscribed. I’ll leave that to our competitors. Giving your drivers just enough scraps to keep them hungry and dependent only makes the owners prosper.

The toughness of the Knowledge creates comradeship. Everyone who completes it joins an elite band of people who have achieved something monumental. If it was easy, it wouldn’t have so much value. But it shouldn’t be so tough as to deter people who could become really good cab drivers. The Knowledge needs to be firm, but fair. I’ve spoken up against the practice of Red-Lining recently. This is where a Knowledge candidate can be put back a stage should he or she fail to gain enough marks within a particular stage. It’s right that you should stay on the treadmill if you’re not progressing, but you should never be put back. This is the sort of thing that puts people off.

The new Knowledge promotion rightly stresses the trade’s inclusivity. It doesn’t matter about your background; whether you’ve a university degree, or were expelled from a sink Comprehensive. All you need is motivation and the determination to succeed.

So who might be interested in signing up? It depends on where you are coming from. People join the cab trade after doing other things. It’s not a school-leaver’s career. You need a bit of adult disillusionment in the world of work first. If you’re happy with your job, fine. Many people’s jobs have both got harder, and less secure. Is it more risky going on the Knowledge, or staying where you are while things deteriorate and you become at ripe for redundancy? My job in 2010 seemed secure, but it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t fun anymore. It was more of a risk to stay on.

It’s very competitive out there on the streets. We’re being undercut by Uber, and Uber themselves are being undercut by new outfits. We’ll surely go through more periods of uncertainty before things settle, but we’ll come through. It could well be a good time to start the Knowledge.

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