(Original edit of article written for this week’s edition of Taxi magazine).
The March 5th edition of Taxi informed us that: “An on-demand bus service allowing passengers to book their seat using an app is to be trialled by Transport for London”.
It’s unlike TfL to make things easier for bus travellers: some years ago they refused to accept cash payment, and even further back they slowed things down by making bus conductors redundant. This forced everyone to wait until everyone had boarded, scanned their cards, and the tourists had asked the driver to point out Primark on their maps, before moving off.
This is a new and exciting type of bus service though. In fact, it’s so new that I don’t think it’s a bus service at all. It’s an on-demand bus service booked through an app. In other words it’s private hire. It’s a minicab!
In a time when the taxi and private hire trades are looking for clarity as to their respective roles and responsibilities, the waters are muddied further by uncertainty. A taxi can be booked to and from a specific point, by apps and through radio circuits. They can also be hailed directly from the street or from designated ranks. Minicabs can be booked in the same way, though they aren’t allowed to respond to immediate hails (Uber, of course, work in a grey area, but they are essentially responding to immediate hailings via an app). Buses pick up and set down at regular intervals on a specified route. They work to timetables and specified fares.
We are told that customers will be able to book seats on a 14-seat minibus. There don’t seem to be bus stops, but convenient locations, including those not currently served by public transport. It still sounds like private hire to me.
TfL’s Director of Innovation (nice work if you can get it), Michael Hurwitz, wonders if the service will serve the Mayor’s Transport Strategy in reducing car dependency, and whether it “can be deployed to support the established bus network.” I don’t know: is the proposed new service supporting the established bus network, or is it undermining it? The London bus network is made up of several individual bus companies, licensed under the umbrella of TfL. We hear how the bus companies are already struggling as bus numbers are cut. Would these established bus companies lose further custom to the new service? And will there be more congestion if the new minibuses are stopping and starting on additional routes? (on roads thoughtfully narrowed by TfL?).
In questioning what constitutes a bus, we can look at other vehicles. For instance, what’s the legal definition of an ambulance? Some vehicles with “Ambulance” written on the side look like ambulances – y’know, those big yellow and green monstrosities resembling Morrison’s delivery trucks, only noisier. Other ambulances are regular-sized cars. There are even ambulance cycles. I’m not sure how that works when you need to transport someone to hospital – give them a backy? I swear I once saw a minibus-type “Ambulance” displaying a private hire roundel.
We have cycle rickshaws the size of minis blocking up cycle lanes, and obstructing bus lanes. I recall observing these contraptions a good twenty-five years ago. Successive mayors said they’d do something about them, but they’re still here, and some of them are motorised! There are motorised cycles too – how are they allowed to use public roads?
What about the status of the road user? There is a proliferation of kids’-type scooters being ridden on roads and pavements. There’s also the occasional roller skater, skateboarder, or segeway rider: why are they allowed to obstruct the public highway? How do we stand with insurance if we hit a bloke riding a plank of wood?
Finally a word about our taxis. As I had a new engine and gearbox fitted to my eight-year old TX4 last year I figured I’d abandon plans to part-exchange it before its licensing inspection in March. I then heard about TfL’s de-licensing scheme. This could provide me with a £10,000 windfall to put towards a new cab, and allow me to sell my redundant cab outside London. Two problems: I wanted to compare and contrast the prohibitively expensive LEVC cab with the slightly less outrageously-priced Nissan Dynamo. The Dynamo is still not available in London, so I’m in a bit of a limbo. Should I sell the cab anyway and rent a cab until I can buy a new electric one? The thing is, it could be another year before the Dynamo appears.
It’d be nice to get my hands on that £10,000 de-licensing fee though. What could I do with ten grand? Should I leave it untouched in the bank until a suitable new cab becomes available or spend a weekend at Cashino? With just a few weeks window before my cab’s licensing inspection I heard there was already a long queue of gamblers waiting to cash in their chips for a ten grand windfall. This trade is becoming quite a gamble.