Author Archives: Pubcat London Taxi Tails

About Pubcat London Taxi Tails

I' m a London Cab Driver, writer, and a qualified Careers Adviser. I am also a former Knowledge of London Examiner (old customers need not call me Sir any more, we're all equals here, dude). I'll use this site to give my own idiosyncratic spin on the cab trade, and other social issues. There will be original edits of published magazine articles, plus shorter comments. So, why Pubcat? Simply because I like pubs and I like cats; and I support the social inclusion of all animals in pubs (Yes, that's my house tiger, Rocky, sat on a London map when I was studying the Knowledge the second time round).

Driven to Distraction

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

 

The police have been criticised for being slow to prosecute drivers exceeding London’s 20mph speed limits – probably because they’ve more important work to do, like apprehending  fire engines crewed by Extinction Rebellion, and yachts on Oxford Street. The bad news is that new 20mph roads are coming soon, and the authorities are calibrating more cameras to catch speed freaks. These 20mph limits are just another money-making scheme dreamed up by hard-up councils. Anyway, can you remember when you last exceeded 20mph on any road in Central London?

Speed is reported to be a factor in 5% of road accidents. Distraction is the biggest cause. Mobile phone use gets a lot of coverage, but there are many more distractions. I’d venture that some of the biggest distractions are those 20mph signs. As soon as you see them your eyes are involuntarily taken off the road and drawn down to your speedometer. The signs don’t usually exist in isolation either; they are just added to the cluster of other signs that we feel compelled to read as we try to concentrate on the driving. While scanning both sides of the road for red and white warning signs, and yellow diversion signs, you’ll also be checking the road below as you negotiate miles of speed bumps. If you are in Islington and want to avoid the horrors of the new system at Highbury Corner, Liverpool Road proves to be a very bumpy and frustrating short cut to Holloway. We all know that Islington like their traffic cameras.

The yellow road closure signs are the hardest to read. The closure details are often crudely written in marker pan, or contain so many words that you’re never going to take in all the information in one go.

We all have our favourites coming in and out of work. Driving in and out of London every workday my eyes are always drawn to the large yellow signs around the junction of Finchley Road and Hendon Way. The signs warn of pointless time-bound closures of Briardale Gardens and Pattison Road. There are a lot of words on those signs: I thought about counting them for the purposes of this article, but that’s like giving in to madness. They’re huge signs, but on a 40mph road like Hendon Way I defy anyone to read every word as they fly past avoiding the buses and coaches pulling in to the middle lane as we merge into Finchley Road. Further down towards Swiss Cottage I’ve sometimes wanted to read the parking restrictions, but you can’t make sense of complex parking rules while you’re moving, and Finchley Road isn’t a place to stop and sightsee.

The signs are often inaccurate: I noticed September’s closure of Fetter Lane started several days early. I never got to read the signs at the southern end of Gray’s Inn Road before the closures. I assume the closures came and went; but a new sign went up the following week at the new closure caught me out. I like the way they keep these signs up to warn us off London completely. I suppose it’s the modern equivalent of putting heads on spikes outside the Tower of London. As I write this I’ve noticed a yellow sign in Brook Street just before Hanover Square. Unless I’m the first cab at that junction I’ll probably not get to read that, so I’ll prepare myself for a nasty surprise if I need Hanover Square in the next few weeks.

I don’t know if driving standards have got worse over the years. Possibly. Driving conditions have certainly got harder. Current road closures are the worst I’ve ever known – and this is before Extinction Rebellion’s October uprising. Bridge Street, New Bridge Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Underpass, Brompton Road and Hammersmith Bridge don’t even get mentioned on the traffic reports any more. There are too many to report on, so only a selection of new ones make the bulletins. Hopefully, these closures are temporary; but you never know. I’m surprised they’re working to fix Hammersmith Bridge. It’s going to take three years, and I’m surprised Boris didn’t commandeer it as his garden bridge.

Those are the closures for works. It’s the other closures that are more troubling. All too often we are prevented from doing our job effectively and providing a door to door service. Just recently I’ve come across unexpected restrictions in Bute Street and Enford Street. Time-bound restrictions are the most irritating of them all. Lloyd Baldwin listed many closures in Taxi 452. It made grim reading. As Lloyd pointed out, the timings vary too. Many roads are now closed at certain times of the day around schools. There were no road closures when I was at school. We had to walk on the pavement. We could try driving on the pavements like the cyclists, but there’s probably a law against that too.

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New Knowledge of London Book

Not my book, but one by Tom Hutley. A fascinating read for anyone interested in the training that London taxi drivers have to take to get licensed. As a former Knowledge Examiner I endorse this as a true and accurate record of what the weird & frightening world of the Knowledge entails!

The book is available from Amazon.

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“To become a London black cab driver aspiring students have to undergo a unique and arduous exam process formally known as; The Knowledge, an average study time of 3-5 years.

Join Tom Hutley on his journey from a misguided university graduate to 3 years of mentally capturing and reciting all of London’s; roads, streets, and points of interest, achieving the required standard it takes to become a London cabbie.

“You are not just a taxi driver, you are a professional navigator; you hold the keys to London in your mind and are an expert geographer of the six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. Best of all, this Knowledge belongs to you; No-one can ever take that away from you, and let me tell you, it is incredibly liberating to know the ins and outs of one of the world’s major cities!”

This book will not only demonstrate the best practices to get you through The Knowledge, but give an insight into why so many men and women put themselves through the long and arduous study”.

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Boris’s EU Letter

How can he send that letter before 11pm tonight – the Post Office is closed! That’s what I’d say anyway. Boris, mate, just tell ’em you put a stamp on the envelope and put it in the post box earlier. When it doesn’t arrive, just blame the shoddy postal service in Europe.

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Keeping Your Head Above Water

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

New York City yellow cab drivers have been having it tough for a while. Like many taxi groups around the world, their trade has been hit by unfair competition from organisations like Uber. The situation in New York is particularly bad because in the past, drivers paid huge amounts of money to buy access into a trade where numbers are restricted.  Each taxi needs a licence medallion. The medallion system restricts numbers, and by 2014 they cost up to one million dollars to buy. Drivers can lease a medallion for $100 per shift, but in the past drivers took out loans to buy medallions when times were better and are now finding it hard to make the loan repayments. The arrival of Uber, Lyft, &c. have greatly reduced trade and taxi drivers aren’t making enough money to cover their loans. Some drivers have committed suicide over the worry.

Debt isn’t something you hear discussed in the cab caffs, but many of us have been affected by it at points in our lives. I’m managing to keep my head above water, but there have been some grim times.

London drivers don’t have to buy medallions; but a cab loan, or the weekly rental, takes a big chunk out of our pay. I was soon in trouble when I joined TfL as a Knowledge examiner in 2011. I was on a decent wage, but I was only a few months into a finance deal on a new cab and I had to find £768 every month. That was the basic cab loan; my fuel bill driving in from Northampton every day was colossal. I had to work one or two days on the cab at weekends after five days at TfL just to pay the loan. And although TfL paid my train season ticket from Northampton – yes, very generous – I had to wait four weeks for my first pay packet. I was also shocked how much I was deducted for tax, National Insurance and pension.

I dug myself into a hole. It isn’t always easy to admit you have a problem, but I eventually sought help from a debt charity. They consolidated my various debts and loans into one agreed monthly payment. Even with a large debt, it can be spread out and managed. They helped explain things with the banks.  My main bank put my account on “Control”. All that really meant was that I couldn’t get an overdraft. Just as well really, as that helped me to get into difficulty in the first place.

I eventually recovered, but I faced another financial meltdown when the cab’s engine and gearbox needed replacing in October 2018. Before I could get straight, the cab failed its licensing inspection in March 2019. I had to spend a king’s ransom on bodywork. It would have ruined me had I not been able to cash in a small pension I took out when I started out in the late 1980s. I only take a week each year on a proper going-away holiday, but problems with the cab forced me to have several weeks off. I’m sure some drivers have been ruined by similar events. Having enforced holidays costs us dearly.

Having a bad credit rating makes it difficult to get further credit, but once you get straight and start making payments on time you credit rating improves quickly. After a few years I managed to obtain a credit card, and my credit Iimit has been raised a few times. I try to pay the full amount every month to avoid exorbitant interest payments.  I used to dread official-looking envelopes arriving from companies I didn’t recognise. I still do, but mostly because I think it might contain a photo of my cab on a yellow box junction and a demand for payment – as it did only last week when a photo arrived showing my cab touching a yellow box junction on Cricklewood Broadway.  I don’t open letters straight away if I think they might contain something nasty. I wait until I’ve finished work for the week. I recently received a letter from Huddersfield. I don’t know anyone in Huddersfield, or knowingly have any business dealing with anyone in Huddersfield. When I eventually found the courage to open the letter I saw it was from my bank offering me a credit card. Times have certainly changed for me, though I’m not complacent. I also know where to find help if I need help. Unforeseen things happen, particularly when you’re self-employed and are dependent on an expensive vehicle for your livelihood. It’s important not to overreach yourself with cab loans, and to be realistic about your earning capability. You need to base your financial projections on your worst day rather than your best day, and sometimes that figure needs to be reviewed.

You need to be honest with yourself if you are getting into difficulties. Admitting you are in trouble is difficult. It affects your pride; but it’s usually best to speak to your family about any problems and have them on your side too.

If anyone reading this gets into financial difficulties, I can recommend a free service from the organisation that helped me get back on the straight and narrow, Step Change.

 

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Station to Station

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Reading about the Uber driver who crashed his car into the concourse at Barking Station got me thinking about how taxi arrangements at train stations have changed over the years. I can just about remember the time when taxis used to rank up inside Paddington Station, right by the platforms. It was easier for us and more convenient for our customers in those days. Later we’d queue up alongside Eastbourne Terrace. We’ve put up with the horrible ramp off Bishop’s Bridge Road for several years. Maybe when Crossrail is finished we’ll go back to Eastbourne Terrace? I can’t imagine being allowed back inside the station; not with the security risk or the war on diesel. And I’m sure the barrier in Praed Street will remain while there’s the fear of minicabs shooting down the ramp scattering everyone like pigeons.

I’ve long thought that we’re not really wanted at stations (or airports). Those controlling things are making it more difficult all the time. King’s Cross and St. Pancras as are a nightmare for setting down. Pancras Road resembles Mumbai on a bad day with all those minicabs, buses and coaches jostling for access. Pedestrians dodge the moving traffic like sacred cows. Thankfully, the traffic is slower than they can walk, so no harm is done.

Leaving these two stations is even worse. You usually have to queue to leave King’s Cross heading south, and there are now only two exit lanes from St Pancras, left or right. As a crazy bit of traffic management you can’t even go straight ahead into Judd Street.

The new re-modelling at Pancras sees a one-lane rank next to a cycle lane. The kerbing makes joining and leaving the rank difficult. You don’t want to break down there, or decide you’ve queued for too long and want out. You can no longer go around cabs whose drivers are loading up large amounts of passengers and freight. The cycle lane is rarely used, but you have to be alert to bikes, scooters and cycle rickshaws. I’ve seen electric bikes zooming down past the cab rank. I was there recently and saw a taxi that had broken down at the head of the rank. There was no space for other cabs to pull around the rank so we had to use the cycle lane. I made it all right in my TX4, but the Vito behind me had difficulty and the driver scuffed his hubcaps on the kerb. I was picking up a wheelchair passenger so had to pull around to access the kerbing for the ramp. I could put the ramp down, and open the offside door to load the cases; but I couldn’t open both doors fully at the same time thanks to badly-placed metal bollards. Thankfully, my burly Australian passengers managed to squeeze the wheelchair in at an angle.

Don’t get me started on Euston. Access is difficult from any direction apart from Euston Road eastbound. I feel sorry for the folk living and working around Endsleigh Gardens, where their peace and quiet is blighted by all the traffic jostling for position on one and a half lanes at Gordon Street. I feel sorry for myself too whenever I’m in the area, and you can never predict how bad it’s going to be.

Liverpool Street Station has been difficult to access for as long as I can remember. Eldon Street and Old Broad Street take you close, but if you try to drive right up to the station entrance you’ll get a ticket – or at least told off for stopping on the zig zags on Eldon Street as happened to me once.  Liverpool Street itself is all right if you find a space, but we’re still not being allowed to provide a door-to-door service. If people have suitcases I usually try going down the ramp off Primrose Street and drop off right by the platforms. This is a longer route from most directions, and I’m always anxious making for this entrance as they sometimes close the entrance off without warning. It’s a real embarrassment as it means quite a long ride to an alternative entrance.  I recently heard of a driver unable to set down a wheelchair passenger there.

Spare a thought for our provincial, cousins. They have it worse in many respects. Many taxi drivers outside London have to pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of using station ranks. Airports are even worse. We’ve seen Luton Airport sell taxi provision to private hire. If a Luton taxi driver wants to pick up at his local airport he has to join Addison Lee. Have you noticed how we all have to pay to drop off at certain airports?  I believe Heathrow are planning something big, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had to pay to drop off a City Airport in the future.  The folk running these transport hubs need to be reminded that we are serving their customers.

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London Closed for Business

(Article written for Taxi magazine prior to No Car Day).

 

Are we all looking forward to No Car Day on September 22nd? I expected taxis to be exempt, but it seems we’re all going to be punished on the big day. Reading further, it seems the Mayor’s “No Car Day” is a bit of a marketing con anyway. I thought the whole of Central London was going to be closed, but it’s only certain roads. In fact, it looks like any number of weekend days closed off to accommodate a programme chock full of disruptive cycling and running races, organised demos and marches, and non-organised flash demos.

I’ve already taken a handful of days off this year that I didn’t want to take off, and here comes another enforced holiday. I hear this event – if you can call it that – is costing London taxpayers one million pounds. I thought the aim would be to save money. Who else is paying? Anyone who has to drive on that day will be making a contribution in lost time and wasted fuel. Those forced to work will be sat in traffic queues on the few roads that are open pondering on their situation. It’ll cost many individuals and organisations money.

I’m convinced these events are arranged as part of an anti-car agenda. At one time it was just the London Marathon and Gay Pride. Now, as many disruptive events as possible are scheduled throughout the year; mostly at weekends, but sometimes on weekdays too. The idea is to make the environment as hostile as possible so people keep away.

In August we had the Notting Hill Carnival. Every year we hear calls to scale down the carnival or move it to a park (it then stops being a carnival and becomes a fete). It must be very disruptive if you live in the area and need to move around, but Notting Hill is unaffected by travel disruption for most of the year, and the carnival is at least concentrated in one area; it doesn’t usually form part of the demonstration route for angry crustafarians.The carnival procession doesn’t go from Piccadilly Circus to Ladbroke Grove, and it doesn’t affect our work too much. The event also provides enjoyment to thousands. I can’t see any fun in a No Car Day.

Even on a Sunday few people drive in London for fun. Some people have little choice but to drive. Anyone on ComCab will tell you that lots of folk need to get to and from hospitals every day of the week on Taxicards; people with limited mobility who find it difficult to use public transport. Most events that shut our streets are for the benefit of a small minority. The rest of us have to suffer.

Extinction Rebellion are the biggest nuisance. They’re like those boorish neighbours in the flat upstairs who decide to throw a noisy party when you’re trying to sleep. You see them bringing crates of beer up, but you give them the benefit of the doubt until the music and dancing starts up, and there’s a yacht captained by Emma Thomson on your garden. Call the police? They’re co-ordinating the dancing.

While I’m at it, have you noticed how (mercifully) short demonstration marches are these days? The BBC to Trafalgar Square? That’s not a march, that’s a sightseeing excursion. In my day a Rock Against Racism march would run all the way to Brockwell Park. That’s in the Deep South in case you’re wondering.

How much does the London Mayor earn, I wonder? (I could look it up, but I’d rather not know). Perhaps London taxpayers could have a whip-round and finance a No Mayor Year. Another million should do it. Few people would notice the Mayor’s absence, though London might get some peace and quiet and we might be able to get on with our jobs without botheration. A Mayor’s job should be to open things, not close them. I should have asked him to open the new KFC near me. Its opening has caused a buzz around town, and it’s open until 11.30. No more shall Leighton Buzzard’s nightlife be in the shadow of the bright lights of Luton. I’m sure any Mayor worth his salt would want to be part of that event. Yes, put Mr Khan on light duties and let him do the things Mayors normally do; like wear a chain and a tricorn hat and cut ribbons at village fetes. At least he’d be opening something.

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Keep those Wheels Rolling

(Original version of article for Taxi magazine).

 

Every day I get the feeling we’re not-so subtly being discouraged from using petrol and diesel vehicles; but I nearly choked on my Rice Krispies when a talking head on BBC Breakfast News complained that cars are sat parked up doing nothing 98% of the time. I thought we were meant to leave them at home and cycle to work?

Transport for London have got themselves into a difficult position. They’ve zealously taken on the green agenda, but in reality little of it is a real attempt to improve air quality. It’s cost TfL – and the London taxpayer – a fortune re-directing, re-paving, and re-kerbing roads, and installing new traffic lights and road signs. Much of the recent road re-modelling is all about keeping the buses moving. TfLs precious buses can now use Tottenham Court Road to go south, while everyone else queues behind buses going north since they’ve taken two lanes out. Same with Baker Street and Gloucester Place: these two roads worked reasonably well until they made them two-way and cut the lanes. The ban on motor vehicles around Bank Junction is nothing more than a cynical ploy to improve bus times, while pursuing a very lucrative cash from cameras agenda.

There seems to be more traffic, but there’s actually less. The number of motor vehicles in London has reduced, but those of us forced to drive here are kettled into fewer streets, crawling behind buses or belching out fumes while stationary.  No-one can get around, and in many cases that includes the buses, which TfL are trying to protect.

That figure of 98% of cars being inactive is alarmingly high, but don’t worry, Transport for London can help to utilise that neglected Prius on your driveway. Their remedy is to licence them all as minicabs. Even if you’re not living or working in London, TfL are happy to licence you so you can work in Wolverhampton or Brighton. Keep those wheels rolling! (minicab drivers don’t just use the Toyota Prius, of course. If you have a BMW you can earn shedloads of money, I’ve seen the ads!).

It makes a mockery of their green agenda, but getting all those under-used cars on the road raises a lot of money through private hire driver and operator licensing; plus the Congestion Charge that private hire drivers now have to pay. Maybe the idea was always to tempt people in to apply for PH licences, then hit them hard? Local authorities make a lot of money through parking and box junction fines, and using all those enforcement cameras to catch people out with complex road layouts, and complex rules involving times of operation – or the enigmatic “Access Only” rule (of course, I want access!). I think we can use Queen Victoria Street and go through Bank Junction while Cannon Street is closed, but I don’t think we can use it in reverse, even though Cannon Street westbound is closed too. We recently read in Taxi that they’re fining someone every minute in the City’s Square Mile.

Transport for London have spent a lot of money paying taxi drivers to de-licence their cabs, in the hope that they’re sold up north and become someone else’s problem. They want to bring in a shorter licence period so any London cab will have a working life of only twelve years. No, I don’t want to drive a twelve year old cab either, but the shortage of cabs to buy or rent has already started with the de-licencing scheme, and will surely get a lot worse.

I worked out that my cab is used little over 20% of the time. I thought of de-licensing it, but there’s still no affordable cab available to buy, and there’s a shortage of cabs to rent. Maybe we should all be thinking of renting our cabs out when we’re not using them? We could see a return to the tradition of drivers doubling-up: one driver using the cab in the daytime, and another using it at night. As the 2,500th electric taxi rolls off the production line I doubt their new owners will be able to afford to have their sixty-grand cabs sitting around doing nothing.

So, they don’t want us driving, and they don’t want us not driving. A lot of people make a lot of money out of motorists: a diverse selection of folk working to different agendas. Some want us to keep buying cars as it’s good for the economy, while others tax us to an inch of our lives, and fine and charge us for driving where they don’t want us to go. The government are still making money from the exorbitant taxing of petrol and diesel, but they’ll surely want to find other ways to make up their money when electric vehicles become more popular. All interested parties lose money when our vehicles are laid up on the driveway.

Ps. cycles probably aren’t being ridden 98% of the time so beware a campaign in the near future.

 

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