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?

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Are You Uber in Disguise?

  1. Whilst identifying them would alert the general public to the terrible mess it would also make touting much more prevalent as the public would assume they can just hail one!

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