Author Archives: Pubcat London Taxi Log

About Pubcat London Taxi Log

I am a London Cab Driver, article 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 am interested in the philosophy behind work: Why we choose particular work, what we give of ourselves, and what we get out of it. I believe we need to keep in our minds these things in order to remain motivated. Enjoyment in work is largely in our minds, and I believe we have an existential control over our attitudes and individual philosophies. We make our choices and we need to make the best of our decisions. 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).

Weather Report

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I don’t know what the weather is like as you’re reading this, but at the time of writing it feels like summer has been and gone. A month after the last of the snow we enjoyed the hottest April day since 1949. One minute we still had the central heating on at home, the next I’m getting my shorts out for the summer. The weather has now settled into a typically unpredictable spring.

Thursday April 19th was a miserable day as I crawled around the West End in the boiling heat wondering what roads were left open. Roads around Hyde Park Corner were closed off for the Commonwealth meetings.  Pall Mall westbound was closed, and I was alarmed to find Brook Street closed too (I think this one was for roadworks, though there was no notification, as usual). I made it to lunchtime, and thought I’d treat myself to some cool air afterwards. I found out my air-conditioning had packed up. It was like driving a kebab shop.

My cab had recently passed its inspection, but it was still costing me money. That’ll be another £50 for re-gassing my air-conditioning system – when I can afford it. I spent £50 a few days after the inspection when I noticed steam issuing from the bonnet when I put on at the Jermyn Street rank. I got the cab to the Luton Cab Centre without incident before they closed, and had an early finish. I barely made my diesel money for the day. I must have had every section of radiator hose replaced in the last two years. What do they make these hoses out of? Aren’t they meant to be waterproof and heat resistant?

Some days later the cab failed to start when I was about to set off in the morning. The RAC fitted a new battery. I’d lost a day and £147. I wish I took the trouble to learn a bit about engines earlier in my career. At least I’d have an idea what these parts were that I seem to have replaced at every service. Wishbones, bushes, trailing arms, anybody?

I shouldn’t really whinge about not having air-conditioning. In earlier days it was a luxury, and considered a bit flash for a taxi. The first FX4s I drove didn’t have it. You had to open a window, manually. Electrical switches were a rarity. When I bought a new Fairway I didn’t think it was worth spending extra money on air-conditioning. I thought having a sun roof would be enough. I then realised that a sunroof serves as a magnifying glass. Opening up the sunroof to its fullest four inches I didn’t feel any cooler. You get a bit of air, but also a lot of dust and debris from building sites (we all know how many building sites there are in London now; do the new cabs come with opening roofs?).

I don’t know how we survived the hot summers. Over-heating radiators were more common in the 90s. On particularly hot days I’d be swerving around cabs and buses that had ground to a halt in a heap of steam, and were awaiting things to cool down before adding more water.

Cyclists must get really hot peddling away in the heat. Most of us learnt the Knowledge on a motorbike. I was also a motorcycle courier. It was desperately hot in the summer wearing a crash helmet and protective clothing, but I felt I needed some protection riding around Central London all day, then riding the company Honda VT500 home to Upminster. I’ve seen many motorcyclists wearing T-shirts and without gloves recently; in the West End and also on motorways. It makes me shudder. Things were no more comfortable in the winter when you needed thermals and furry mitts. No, I wouldn’t go back to courier work; whether on a cycle, motorbike, or in a van.

 

If I had to choose hot or cold weather, I’d go for hot. I hate those cold, dark, winter evenings in the cab.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much about my job. Hyde Park Corner is back to normal, and I’ll have my air-conditioning back soon. Mind you, I’ve not had the need for any cool air since those few hot days in April. In the weeks that followed we had little but cold, rain, and hail. There were even warnings of snow on high ground at the end of the month. I forgot about my air conditioning and even put the heater on a few times. Anyway, there’s nothing more British than complaining about the weather.

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Public Safety?

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

How’s this for a kick in the head? From Monday 16th to Wednesday 18th  April they opened up Bank Junction to all traffic. This was a temporary measure while dignitaries met for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Forum. I don’t know how often Commonwealth heads meet up in London, but we’re here all the time. This insults those of us who rely on free-flowing traffic in order to do our jobs. Those of us who are in London every day, not once in a blue moon.

The temporary re-opening is an admission that Bank Junction’s closure is all about protecting bus timings. The traffic doesn’t flow any better, of course; it’s just diverted to neighbouring streets. The City clearly didn’t want Commonwealth heads stuck in traffic as they make their way to and from the meetings. Maybe there were dignitaries staying at the Ned?

I don’t know how the dignitaries were getting around: did they take taxis? Or were they treated to chauffeured limousines? (most likely). Would the limos need special permission to drive through Bank Junction? (I’ve seen no Olympic-style lane markings).

The City closed Bank Junction because they said it was dangerous. They cited public safety. Are they now ignoring safety? In opening the junction up they are either saying it is not dangerous; or that it is still dangerous, but they are happy to put VIPs at risk with all those nasty taxis, mini-cabs and vans driving around. It’s like if they relaxed speed limits. If it has been deemed unsafe to drive at over 20mph, and the speed limit is scrapped for three days, it suggests driving over twenty wasn’t dangerous in the first place.

It all gives the false impression that London is open for business. Had the junction remained closed, the VIPs would think it odd there were no taxis or private cars in the City of London, only buses and bikes. London is essentially a working city, yet it is treated like a theme park. The different themes are awarded their own dedicated road closures on a whim. Little regard is paid to those who live or work here. We’ve recently seen Unilever promising to re-locate to Rotterdam because their staff can’t get around London for meetings. Whole areas of Central London are inaccessible for much of the day through ill-informed closures, or traffic schemes that artificially create congestion. Look at the complicated re-modelling of the Blackfriars are in which Unilever sits. It’s a dangerous mess of roads for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

The alternatives to Bank Junction include a slalom of chicanes and temporary lights on Gresham Street. Other difficult to negotiate roads like Lothbury and Bartholomew Lane help form a treacherous bypass of bus-only Bank Junction. The scene is nothing like that depicted on a London postcard that Commonwealth visitors might have picked on their last day: a few black cabs; one 1964 Routemaster bus; and near-empty streets. At least seeing these streets in person gives the opportunity to VIPs to experience modern London envisioned by TfL and its anti-motorist allies.

What’s going on in the City anyway? Road closures on provincial high streets that last a few weeks last months or years in London. Canon Street eastbound seems to have been closed for several months with no indication as to its re-opening. The closure has recently been joined by Gracechurch Street. Is Queen Victoria Street eastbound open when Bank is closed? I think it is, but I’m not sure. Now the westbound seems to be closed. Can we use Queen Street to escape some of the madness? It seems to be open sometimes, and not others. There’s no clear signage. There’s no consistency.

Access to Bank Junction is essential, and it should never have been closed. It adds insult to injury when roads closed for being dangerous are opened up temporarily to create a false impression to visitors. Those making the decisions aren’t going to listen to cab drivers, but when major corporations move out because of roads are closed and systems made too complex, they should realise that something very bad is happening on our streets.

 

 

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Strengths & Weaknesses

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

Things are still up in the air with the licensing of Uber, but whatever happens, others will come. Big companies will move in and attempt to take over existing taxi and private hire provision. They will push TfL’s weak licensing regime as far as they can, and will learn from the mistakes of Uber. We need to be ready for them.

The London taxi trade has traditionally comprised of individual driver-operators. Pre-Uber private hire consisted of a much bigger collection of individual drivers dependent on an operator. Many private hire operators were fairly small firms. Addison Lee were the big corporation in the mini-cab world. They pushed the boundaries and gave us grief, but they were nothing compared with Uber.

Whether private hire drivers are employees or self-employed is still a matter for the courts. London taxi drivers are definitely self-employed individuals running our own businesses. Some of us work full-time, others part-time. Many are semi-retired and just work a few hours a week. We have the freedom and flexibility to plan our work using the twenty-four-hour clock. We operate to strict policies, but no-one tells us what to do, unless we run up our licensing authority the wrong way, annoy the police, or fall foul of parking restriction (how times have changed though: having cameras trained on the yellow lines by the iron lung toilet at Regency Place smacks of George Orwell’s 1984).

Taxi and private hire used to be considered quite a mundane world. Some customers used mini-cabs, some used taxis. We largely had our own client bases, with some overlap. It then got political and wrapped up in complicated matters of law. It’s certainly keeping the lawyers busy.

We’ve never harnessed our collective power as much as we should have because we can’t agree on a political viewpoint. Some of us believe in negotiation, others in militant action. Hopefully we can reach more of a consensus in the near future.

Our individuality is both our strength and our weakness.  As individuals we have autonomy and flexibility. Businesses don’t like us because investors can’t move in to exploit us. Rapacious corporations can’t make a profit off our backs. This is why there was so much suspicion over having to enter into commercial deals with credit card companies. We were forced to sell out in a way.

Uber and their ilk cannot take over the whole London taxi trade. Only our licensing authority can screw us over, and we have reason to criticise the people who should be protecting us from the illegal activities of dubious corporations. We slogged our guts out on the Knowledge knowing that we had the sole right to ply for hire on the street. That was the deal. That right was enshrined in law. The arrival of powerful foreign corporations disrupted everything. TfL listened to the big people with money and power.

This is the disadvantage of being sole traders. We are fiercely independent, though we are vulnerable. We have the support of organisations such as the LTDA. We have some support in parliament too. What we don’t have is the backing of investors, lobbyists and people in high places to the extent that Uber have. We can’t be invested in. We don’t have government spooks putting pressure on our licensing body.

We are a collection of Individual men and women running our businesses for average pay, at best. As individual driver/operators we know that we wouldn’t get away with what Uber get away with. We wouldn’t be allowed to carry on operating after being labelled as not fit and proper as Uber were when they were denied a new licence. Uber are still operating despite being suspended.  And London-licensed drivers are still operating many miles away in other towns. TfL are trying to tighten up on private hire licensing because they know they made a mistake in licensing Uber. It’s likely they’ll have them back, even if they have to work to stricter rules.

I think the only answer is to keep on keeping on: to provide the best service we can as individuals. We should celebrate our status as free-thinking individuals, but also remember we are part of a bigger whole. With a positive mental attitude and by providing an outstanding service we can spread goodwill among the trade and our customers. By being negative and unhelpful, we do the opposite. It’s down to and every one of us to strive for excellence. We’ll never all be in the same trade organisation because of our diversity, but we all need to be in an organisation and stick to the rules. We need to keep our nose clean and a smile on our face.

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The Cycle of Change

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

As cab drivers we used to plod along happily unaffected by change. If someone wanted a cab they’d wave their hand or approach a rank. We took cash. There was no fiddling with buttons and worrying whether the customer’s credit card was going to work. There was no stress waiting for card clearance with a bus sat behind us. We all had a bit more road space and road systems were less complicated. Things were altogether less fraught out there. When I started out there were no cameras poised to photograph your wheel as it touched the hallowed yellow paint of a box junction. You could buy a new cab that didn’t need to be plugged in.

Many of these changes have happened in the last handful of years, and there are more changes coming to our streets. Changes not just to our working conditions, but to the wider environment we work in. Updated forms of transport are being offered to customers which could disrupt the status quo and provide headaches to the authorities who control the roads. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

In a recent article I mentioned motorised rickshaws. How they’ve allowed a rickshaw on the road with a motor I’ll never know. There are more cycles coming: hire cycles that don’t have to be returned to a docking station, but can be dumped anywhere. OBikes are four times cheaper than the Santander “Boris Bikes” and can be left wherever you like. If these cheaper bikes are allowed to continue it’ll lead the way for more unregulated cycle hire outfits to flood the market. It’ll make a dent in the profits of the current supplier, and create piles of cycles on our pavements for people to trip over. It’s a situation rather like the pedicabs. The authorities failed to clamp down on them and we now have pedicabs with motors riding down cycle lanes! TfL can’t really say anything as they allowed it to happen in the first place.

If TfL did put a stop to motorised rickshaws or discount dump-where-you-like hire bikes, could we say they were luddites resistant to progress and competition? Isn’t that what many people said about cab drivers when credit card acceptance became mandatory?

TfL are making big losses because fewer people want to ride their tube trains and buses. They still have the private hire money-spinner though. They’re trying to claw money out of private hire by drastically raising operator’s licensing fees. Large mini-cab operators have to find £30,000 for a five-year licence, where previously the fee was £2,826. The mini operators are fighting the case in court. They argue that TfL failed to conduct a considered and thorough consultation before raising fees, and didn’t carry out an independent regulatory impact assessment. I suggest that TfL and other authorities never consider the impact or carry out a proper consultation on anything. Look at what they’ve done to London’s roads with all their crazy re-modelling schemes and closures.

Whatever you feel about private hire you must admit that this is a huge rise (up to 5000% in some cases).            Many smaller private hire companies have gone to the wall, or have been eaten up by the larger ones.

None is larger than Uber of course. Maybe thirty-large for running an estimated 40,000 mini-cabs isn’t so excessive. Here’s a question:  if Uber are no longer officially licensed, are they exempt from the thirty grand operator’s fee?

TfL say higher fees are needed to fund extra compliance officers “who do a crucial job in driving up standards and ensuring passengers remain safe.”

TfL themselves could have done more to ensure passengers were safe by making sure DBS criminal record checks were made properly from the start. We recently read about the imprisonment of an Uber driver who was stopped for driving erratically in New North Road. Kareem Worthington’s car was searched and the police found white powder believed to be drugs, and a secreted knife. What struck me about this case was that he had been convicted of possession of a bladed article in 2011 and 2012, and had also been imprisoned for affray in 2014. Did none of these offences come up on his DBS record? Or did TfL decide he was a fit and proper person anyway? Either the current criminal record checking system is open to corruption, or the DBS report isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

We now have motorised chariots carrying families around the West End and getting in everyone’s way. Their drivers don’t need a licence, tax, insurance, vehicle inspection, fare chart; nor any DBS clearance. The old PCO would have run them out of town on a rail.

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Spring Has Sprung

(The snow is a distant memory… Here’s my edit of my article published in Taxi magazine this week.  I’ve now put my ice scraper and windscreen frost sheet away for the year…)

The snow is now a distant memory. I’m confident that by the time you read this we can see sunshine and the green shoots of spring. It wasn’t like that at the beginning of the month.

I usually have Monday and Tuesday off. On Monday February 26th I was watching the BBC News. The talk was of the “Beast from the East”, the killer weather on its way from Siberia. There were dire warnings of serious travel disruption, and sub-zero temperatures that were going to cause folk to drop dead from heart attacks. Some parts of the UK were already suffering from The Beast, and it looked like we were all going to get it sometime over the next few days.

BBC reporters stood on motorway bridges and told of mayhem up north, down south, Wales and the west. Train companies had cancelled trains in areas where not a single snowflake had dropped. This both appalled and amused me. I certainly would have been annoyed had I needed to catch a train today. Anyway, how were they coping in Siberia where this weather was meant to originate from? Do the trains stop running in Iceland and Canada every winter?

The media love talking about extreme weather. I later joined in with the jovial humour by posting slightly smug messages on my blog. The sunshine was streaming through my windows as I spoke about how lovely and spring-like the weather was in Leighton Buzzard (I’d already got my sunglasses out, ready to put in the cab, and I was thinking about bringing my ice scraper inside for the next nine months).

I asked my twelve or so blog followers why this country grinds to a halt at the first drop of a snowflake. I spoke about the woman I saw leaving the gym that morning. She had a hat on and she was only walking to the car park a few yards away. Yes, it was cold, but I wore my shorts at Morrison’s as I always do when I’ve come straight from the gym. I later caught a bus into the town centre. They were talking about grim weather coming in the Golden Bell. The bus drivers were talking excitedly about the day off they were going to enjoy the following day when the Beast hit Bedfordshire. Dream on, I thought.

Tuesday was the same: cold but sunny.

I woke up as normal on Wednesday and prepared for work. I looked out of the window and there was a blanket of white. Oh dear. There were four inches of snow on the cab roof, and it was still snowing lightly. Even the cat refused to go out for a look.

I was now faced with the dilemma of trying to make it to London and hope things were all right there, or write the day off. It’s a terrible dilemma when you’re self-employed as if you don’t work you don’t get paid. I thought of those delivery people on zero-hours contracts who were facing the same choice. We’re all on tight margins.

Even if I could get the cab out of the car park at the back of my house I would still be faced with treacherous snow-covered roads on my estate. I found out later the main roads were passable, but a lot could happen in the forty miles between here and London. And what if I got a job to Hampstead Village or somewhere and got stuck there? The TV was already showing vehicles stuck on motorways for several hours. I took the only decision I felt I could and called a writing day.

Thursday was also snowed off. Unbelievably it was now March, and the start of spring.

If anything, things were even worse on Friday. I’d enjoyed a couple of days off, but by now I was fed up and really wanted it to end.

I was confident I’d be able to work Saturday. I started the cab, but I wasn’t confident in getting off the driveway and around the little roads without getting stuck. I felt my time would be better spent on an early lunch at Wetherspoons so walked into town. Just about everyone else had the same idea. The pub was packed at 11.45. It was like the Spirit of the Blitz and we were all huddled down a tube station waiting for the all clear. By the way, if you’re writing a book, as I am, you have every justification for sitting in pubs. I was editing my work. I was working. While there was no guilt on that score, my food and drink bill was mounting.

Most of the snow had cleared by Sunday and I got a decent day’s work in. In London you wouldn’t have known anything untoward had happened weather-wise at all. Spring was coming, I was sure of it. And feeling hopeful, I declared the kipper season over.

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Russian Poisoning

I never did trust those meerkats that appear at the start of Coronation Street. I’m sure Sergei is brewing up a nice samovar of plumonium 210 at Roy’s Rolls in readiness for the next ex-KGB spy come to retire in Wetherfield. Makes you think…

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Down the Tubes

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard a few weeks’ ago and found a most interesting story. The piece revealed that people were deserting the London Underground, and TfL were losing money fast. Apparently, the tube is overcrowded, full of rowdy people, and prone to delays and cancellations. Shoot, I never knew that…

TfL are expected to lose £400 million. Income from fares will fall £239 million below expectations this year, with commercial income from advertising, retail and property £160 million down. This is all “according to confidential documents seen by the Standard.” I’m not sure how the Standard got their hands on confidential documents; I’d suggest they’re not confidential at all. Anyway, let’s go with it.

The tube is the only TfL passenger service that makes a profit – for now anyway. The article goes on to say how the tube is badly hit, with passenger numbers down nearly 4%. What follows forms part of the answer: cycling in Central London is at an all-time high, up 5.8% per year. I bet TfL wished they never started this Cycle Superhighway nonsense.

That’s only part of the story, of course. Other factors are at work; including an annual 7% rise in crime on the TfL train network; plus passenger aggression, acerbated partly by overcrowding, delays and cancellations.

I often pick passengers up at the weekend who have been let down by line closures. I’m not gloating. The tube is an essential lifeline for many, and I don’t like to see people inconvenienced. But I don’t remember such disruption when I lived in London in the 1990s and used the tube regularly. Why are things are so bad now? You’d think that technological advances would have improved things and helped to mend problems quicker.

The next day’s super soaraway Standard carried another thought-provoking piece.  This one told us that electric on-demand pedicabs were being rolled out. This time, I’m definitely not gloating as it affects cab drivers too. George Osborne’s mouthpiece couldn’t resist informing its readership that a vehicle can be booked through an Uber-style app.

Mayor Khan has said nothing about the menace of pedicabs since taking over from Boris, and look what’s happened? London’s about to be flooded by motorised pedicabs.  They can travel at 15.5 mph, and they’re allowed on the Cycle Superhighway cycle lanes. Pedicabs have previously been little more than an irritation. They get in everyone’s way – especially buses – but they’ve never posed a serious threat to the revenue of licenced taxis or mini-cabs. Not until now.  These vehicles are going to undercut taxis, as well as the Mayor’s beloved transport provision. Let’s just hope that we gain a bit of work from TfLs unreliable tube system and increasingly slow buses.

I wonder how much revenue TfL have lost to Uber? People found they could travel almost as cheaply as they could on the tube, and they didn’t have to sit on buses as they lumbered along Regent Street nose to tail. TfL licensed an unfit operator thinking it would only harm taxis and mini-cabs, but neglected the fact that Uber’s use of slave labour and dubious tax arrangements, would allow Uber to undercut TfLs own transport. TfL are a transport provider who have undermined their own products!

Anyway, here’s my own confidential report: my earnings have gone down about 20% in the last five years. The reasons include wage stagnation that affects our customers; plus the illegal licensing of Uber. Permanent road closures and miss-managed temporary closures have compounded the problem, and have made cab rides more expensive. The City has become virtually a no-go area since the closure of Bank Junction, and all the other temporary closures in the area. Oxford Street looks to be going the same way. And Bloomsbury, when Tottenham Court Road is closed.

We have little control over our working environment. Much of it is in the hands of TfL, and they have harmed us all. They’ve stopped the traffic flowing as part of their anti-motorist agenda; yet have bowed to pressure from powerful lobbyists on behalf of Uber and flooded the streets with cars. I’m sure there are fewer private motorists driving in London, but every available the space is filled with mini-cabs. No, we don’t need 160,000 mini-cabs, but a private hire licence has other uses. Any motorist wanting a discounted Congestion Charge season ticket can buy one direct from TfL for a couple of hundred quid.

The funniest bit in the Standard article was the claim that Mr Khan and TfL have partly attributed the downturn in TfLs revenue down to the “uncertainty of Brexit.” How ridiculous. Yes, the country’s going to the dogs. Soon, only cockroaches and Uber drivers will be able to survive in London. We’d better all follow Boris over his bridge to France.

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