Keeping Our Freedom

(Original edit of article written for TAXI magazine).

We London cab drivers like to think of ourselves as free-thinking buccaneers fighting against The Man. We are subject to the same traffic laws as anyone else, but we fear no-one; save for Transport of London if we step out of line, the people manning the enforcement cameras, and the parking wallahs when we nip into a café for a coffee. We need to keep an eye on things though.

The 2016 ruling forcing us to accept credit cards has done us some good, as the public now know we all accept cards; but we undeniably lost some autonomy, and our independence could be challenged further by new ways of working. I’ve heard mutterings lately that some of us have had problems with circuits and app-based hailing providers.

It’s easy to be smug comparing ourselves with the conditions private hire competition work under: having to pay commission to be given work; the pressure to work long hours to get the good jobs; and being penalised for rejecting work. It’s not so bad for us because private hire can’t respond to street hails. They can respond to immediate hire through an intermediary electrical hail, but they can’t stop for hands going up or walk-ups to a rank. I wouldn’t enjoy being publicly graded on my performance, or told to pull my socks up or face expulsion, but I understand that taxi drivers on some app-based platforms are starting to feel similar pressure.

Traditional taxi hailing by the wave of a hand is becoming less common because an increasing amount of our work is supplied by intermediaries. The more we rely on intermediaries, the less autonomy we have. I’m on Computer Cab’s circuit. I might do a handful of ComCab jobs each day, and most days I’ll use their system to process credit cards. Sat on a rank I’m available to walk-ups, but also to account jobs through the ComCab system. I therefore have double the chance of work. I’m often offered a Going Home job when I’m thinking of turning in for the day. If I’m sitting it out for a Going Home job I am still able to bid for any other job that takes my fancy. And if there’s little doing, I can put my light on and respond to a street hail.

Many of us are now aligned to some form of electronic hailing system. We settle on the system that suits our working methods. It’s when we become dependent on an outside body to find us work when the balance of power shifts. ComCab aren’t heavy-handed, and I could survive on the street without the circuit if I had to. The trick is to use the circuit to which you subscribe to your advantage without becoming dependent. Think of it as an extra string to your bow. Some providers come down on drivers hard if they reject too many jobs. Sometimes drivers are expelled from an app for criticising the regime. We like to show loyalty to our chosen provider and to help them out with hard to place jobs, but sometimes we exercise our right to reject work. If I’m tired and facing a forty-mile drive home I’m not going to risk accepting a job with destination unknown, or the dreaded “As Directed.” I’d rather sit there in radio-only mode and let the circuit know that I’m only interested in jobs going in my direction home.

Stopping for someone in the street and then rejecting the job harms our reputation. I won’t stop for someone when I’m thinking of home, then reject them if they’re not going my way. If I’m working, I’m working. If my yellow light’s on, I’m at your service.

Rejecting jobs is a thorny issue; whether on the street or on a circuit. Many of us can remember the days when cab customers stood in the rain waiting for a passing yellow light; but the days are gone when we’d drop off at Waterloo and take our pick from a line of people flagging cabs down on the bridge as we made our way back to the West End.

If a circuit can’t cover all its contracted work, this has a detrimental effect on its reputation for reliability – remember, Uber often supply a car within three minutes. But a circuit coming down heavy on a driver doesn’t sit well with the free-thinking, autonomous, driver. It’s an incredibly fine balance that’s needed between supply and demand. If the calibration is out by the slightest degree, someone isn’t happy: the circuit are under pressure to provide cover to its clients; valued account customers might wait longer than usual for their regular ride home; and the casual user is still waiting in the rain on a busy weekend evening. It’s a fine balance indeed, and give and take is needed. Ultimately, we are all dependent on each other to make things work.

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