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).

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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No Sleep till Hornchurch

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine this week)

 

I laughed when I heard that a union had claimed that applying the Congestion Charge to minicab drivers is racist. In a two-day hearing, the Independent Workers of Great Britain trade union claimed that 94% of London minicab drivers are from an ethnic minority background, while 88% of taxi drivers –who are exempt from the £11.50 daily charge – are white. The charge is therefore racist. Unsurprisingly, they lost the case. Honestly, these lawyers make bundles taking on any half-arse case on behalf of those with deep pockets and talking crap.

Those percentages are an approximation. I don’t think they’d stand up in law. What does “white” or “ethnic minority background” mean anyway?  Almost everyone can claim an element of mixed race. I don’t know how they’re going to define that one in legal terms.

The figures are based on those irritating ethnic monitoring forms so beloved by social workers and public sector departments. That figure of 88% white just indicates a proportion of people who responded to a vague, un-scientific, questionnaire. Not everyone would have responded accurately; either because they’re undecided, or as a “spoilt paper” protest at being asked such personal questions. Have you noticed how they ask about your sexual preferences now? I can’t imagine my parent’s generation being asked whether they were black, white or shorthaired tabby, and whether they preferred boys or girls! I don’t fill those forms in any more, they annoy me. I sometimes feel like presenting myself as a transgender Sikh; partly as a protest against intrusive questions, and partly to make myself appear something more exotic than straight white British.

What’s all this information used for anyway? To target deals that I might be interested in, like when you look up one item on a website and get marketing emails every day and forever afterwards? The government and public sector most likely want to keep tabs on us. These groups champion diversity, yet want to categorise us more than ever. Maybe they sell the details on to Russian gangsters when they’ve finished cataloguing us?

Taxi drivers wanting to work in inner-London have to pass a long series of traumatic exams for that privilege. They also have the option to just study for suburban sectors. Minicab drivers can work anywhere in London, on a licence that a chimpanzee could get. If they don’t want to pay the Congestion Charge they can stay in the suburbs with the yellow badge taxis. Of course, we’ve seen plenty of London-licenced minicabs operating in towns well out of London since private hire expanded to saturation point. They outnumber taxis by over 4 to 1. They’ve become victims of their own success. It’s a luxury for them to be able to work in Soho. They’ve had it too good for too long, and congestion has reached the point where something had to be done. They can use any car they want too, so why not use a wheelchair accessible one and save on the charge? We have no choice in the matter.  The IWGB claim that minicab drivers are losing up to £200 per month as a result of the Congestion Charge. I’ve been losing £200 a week since TfL flooded the streets with Uber.

People aren’t generally recruited to be self-employed taxi or minicab drivers We’re not tapped up to join MI6. The majority of taxi drivers in London might happen to be white, but that just reflects the people who have bothered to apply. Your colour isn’t part of the application process. The union claim would hold some water if non-white applicants were treated any different. They’re not. I worked as a Knowledge examiner and I know. So what if 88% of London taxi drivers are white? That’s almost the average for the British population as a whole. If the ethnic make-up of the two trades is an issue, whitefolks could say they’re under-represented in the private hire trade and demand some special rights. Perhaps they’d let us drive a cab without the turning circle?

The IWGB claim that 71% of the 94% “BAME” drivers (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic – are you keeping up?) live in the most deprived areas of London. That’s probably true, but I don’t see many taxis parked on driveways on Bishop’s Avenue. I can’t afford to live in London; in a deprived area or not. As an ex-Knowledge examiner I know where taxi drivers live: they all live in Hornchurch. Every man-Jack one of them. Not all of Hornchurch is leafy and affluent; there are some grim places on that 165 bus route. I lived there as a teenager, but I couldn’t afford to live there now. I’m just about surviving thirty-five miles out. I don’t see any TfL minicabs in Bedfordshire, but they must be doing all right if they’re living in London. Luxury!

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I Don’t Understand It: Cricket

England won the World Cup, then they’re playing again a few days later! Don’t they have a rest? I believe they’re currently playing Australia. They play the same team and it goes on for days. All day; not ninety minutes like football. I wonder about the spectators who spend a whole week watching the same match – don’t they have jobs to go to?

Other things about it I don’t understand: some days the ball is white, another time it’s red. Sometimes they wear vivid colours, sometimes both teams are in white. And what’s this I hear about poor light stopping play? Why not turn the floodlights on??

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Trust Your Head

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

 

Reports suggest that cab passengers will soon be able to get alerts when the Google app they are using senses that you have strayed off course. Minor diversions shouldn’t trigger an alarm, but if you go off course more than 500 metres you might have to explain yourself. I don’t think I’m being controversial in saying that it’s largely the private hire competition who are going to be the more nervous, though we’re all likely to get the occasional passenger who thinks they know more than we do about the geography of London. I don’t know about you, but I trust my own judgement over a computer anytime.

I first became aware that customers were following my route on a phone app about five years ago. After a short hop from The Mall into Soho, my Indian man beamed and said “very good.” It was good to get the vote of confidence, though I had nothing to worry about. On a different run the bells might have been ringing though. I’m sure almost all cab drivers going from Central London to Heathrow use the M4. Look at a map: we should be using Bath Road for some of those runs to Terminal 5. Someone following the route on an app might question this. I’ll go any way a passenger wants me to go. If anyone ever questions me over a run to Heathrow I’d me more than happy to sit on Bath Road and go around those roundabouts and around buses.

I’m unsure if the new alerts on Google will factor in the time element. Or the pain-in-the-arse element. Have a look at Victoria to Cricklewood. It’s a straight line, so would satisfy the bots at Google. Have you ever tried driving from Marble Arch to Cricklewood? I go home via the M1 so if I ever finish near Victoria I make for Staples Corner. I wouldn’t go up Edgware Road though! It involves negotiating two of London’s most slow and challenging gyratories: Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch. Then there’s the crawl up Edgware Road. If the shisha fumes don’t overcome you, the stop-start traffic will. It goes on for miles, dragging through Kilburn and Cricklewood. West End Lane is no better.

Driving myself home I usually bypass Marble Arch and go through Mayfair. Once I’m on Regent Street I just go straight up into Regent’s Park and come off at Avenue Road. It’s a much longer route than going straight up Edgware Road, but it’s faster. Carrying a passenger it may or may not save money as well as time. Finchley Road can be bad with all the buses and coaches, so I sometimes use Fitzjohns Avenue.

A satnav only shows you one way, unless you fiddle about with the settings. Both the shortest or fastest route settings are pretty useless in London. I also warn against using a satnav if you’re on holiday in Wales. I once set the satnav for a route that would have been simplicity itself had I followed a map in the traditional way. My satnav’s shortest route sent me down narrow country lanes for miles. It was a very stressful experience.

A satnav doesn’t take into consideration road closures – I’m unsure if the new Google app does. Cannon Street has hardly been open since they closed Bank Junction off a few years ago. The Bank closure left Cannon Street as the only sensible option through the City, but it’s never open. At the time of writing half of Mayfair and Marylebone is closed. I think the closures are temporary, but who knows? Even if there’s a yellow sign up, they don’t tell you much.

Our Knowledge training teaches us to use the shortest route. It’s right and proper that our default is set to the shortest route, but in practice we need to employ our own internal computer – our brain – to find the optimum route in any given situation. Traffic conditions change throughout the day. With experience we learn what certain roads are going to behave like at certain times of the day. It’s a huge matter of pride that we know the shortest route. We’re proud of our lines, but sometimes they’re out the window when we need to keep moving to save time. The skill is to have alternatives stored in our brains to use when traffic is heavy. This is where misunderstanding can occur. Thankfully few people question us, as our customers usually have confidence in our judgment.

We could get a few more questions as more people follow the route, preparing themselves for an alarm bell to go off on their new Google app; but we’ve every right to feel confidence in our abilities to both know the shortest route, and to get out of trouble if we need to take evasive action due to heavy traffic or road closures. The situation is worse for our mini friends who have largely learnt on the job, often slavishly following a satnav. Our work is cut out keeping up with the constant changes to our road systems and traffic behaviour. We know that a satnav won’t get us out of trouble, but our brains just might.

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On Becoming an Oldie

(For those of you getting on in years – read on. I wrote this piece for The Oldie magazine. They said it was delightful, but didn’t use it. Anyway, here it is for the delectation of my blog readers…

It’s started. I’ve enquired about my first over-55s reward card. I was dining out with my wife – at the Ship Inn in Leighton Buzzard – when my attention was drawn to the offer to join the Emerald Club – “Where Experience Is Rewarded.” That works for me: I’d probably be coming back for another meal sometime, and I could claim 15% off the food bill. Before I’d even touched my pint of Doombar I asked the young waitress to rush over an application form. The application form arrived on a card, showing the smiling faces of two late-middle aged couples holding aloft glasses of white wine, evidently subsidised by their 15% saving. One bloke looked suspiciously like Jeremy Corbin.

Doubt set in when  the small-print on the application informed me I’d only get a discount between 11am and 7pm Monday to Friday (so this is why older people eat early?). More importantly, I started to worry what people now thought of me. When I asked for the application form I did it in a slightly jokey way. The waitress smiled without batting an eyelid. I secretly hoped she’d jokingly punch my shoulder and flirtingly exclaim “you’re never over fifty-five!” If she demanded proof of identity I already had my driving licence poised ready for inspection.

As the waitress went about her business with a quiet efficiency, I thought I detected a slight smirk on her face. I grinned weakly in return, imagining we were sharing some kind of private joke. I wanted to ask if the pub had a dedicated parking area for mobility scooters, just to show that my sense of humour hadn’t whittled away with old age. Regrettably, I was in the loo when she made her final visit to our table (the frequency of toilet breaks has been an issue since my thirties, along with occasional bouts of gout).

I wished I’d never started this sorry business. Only minutes ago, I’d breezed past the pub’s staff in my brown leather trousers and brown linen jacket, full of health and vitality. I was a young-for-my-age fifty-seven year-old metrosexual. I had decades of productivity left in me. I’d been contemplating starting a new career, for God’s sake. I’d now, rashly, self-identified as being over the hill. Tired of living? I’m still waiting to start, mate.

When I picked up that card I instantly become an Oldie. I felt differently about myself. Maybe my behaviour would change involuntary? Maybe I’d take on the habits of old people who I’d observed: blokes jingling the change in their pockets, or whistling indiscernible tunes in supermarket aisles. Perhaps I’d feel the urge to potter about in garden centres, or take bracing walks along the prom in Eastbourne? (I’d already started the latter, so maybe the process was already quite progressed). There would inevitably be decisions to be made in the future about bus passes and such like. I fancied that my eyes hovered a bit too long on the ads for stairlifts in the Oldie. Maybe we’d need to move to a bungalow in anticipation of my sad decline?

I’d already floated the idea of buying an “Old Guys Rule” T-shirt, but my idea was vetoed by my 52 year-old wife. Watching Coronation Street, I’d often tell her she could shoot me should I ever start dressing like Roy Cropper. Maybe my jokes hid a secret desire to buy a grey cardigan or an anorak? I laughed about it with my wife, taunting her that she wouldn’t be able to enjoy the benefits of the Emerald Club for another four years. I’d be out with my new friends, enjoying discount meals and toasting each other with the finest wines known to man.

The event made me examine my own views of myself, and of ageing generally. I owned up to being middle aged in my late-thirties, and had happily accepted the manopause. I put on the leather jeans and played bass in a rock band in my forties, but in other aspects I became “set in my ways”. I was quite aware of this though. I would often challenge myself on my Oldie status, and try to keep things at bay.

You don’t have to behave like Keith Richards, but you don’t have to give in to the concept of age. You shouldn’t accept limitations unless forced to. It’s a number thing really. Age is only a number, and I’m no good with numbers. I am a free man, not a prisoner of age. No sir, I shall avoid pigeonholes. I’ll try new things, think in different ways, and continue to learn and explore. I shall always make sure I eat pub dinners after 7pm, despite the offer of discounts.

I was now noticing over-55s offers everywhere. A few weeks’ later I noticed an over-55s deal at my local fish and chip restaurant. Tempting, but ultimately I didn’t feel ready to accept discounts in return for pigeon-holing. I wasn’t going to define myself by a number. I never filled in the application. I’ll review things again at sixty.

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, you have my sympathy.

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On Your Bike

(Original version of article published in Taxi magazine)

I’m intrigued with the case of the cyclist who injured a woman in a collision near London Bridge back in 2015. The cyclist had the right of way with a green traffic light, and shouted and sounded an air horn as the woman walked into his path looking at her phone. Both of them were rendered unconscious. The cyclist had cuts and the pedestrian suffered a minor head injury. As in the modern way, she took the cyclist to court. The judge conceded that the woman was partly at fault, but amazingly awarded her £4,161,79 damages. The cyclist didn’t initially seek legal advice and neglected to make a counter claim as he doesn’t believe in the claim culture. He now faces bankruptcy as he’ll have to pay her legal expenses. The whole thing is estimated to cost between £20,000 and £100,000. Cyclists, and other interested parties, have been donating money to pay the legal expenses. Writing on July 10th, £59,343 had been collected, for a £21,300 target.

The woman was only partly at fault! £100,000 for two days in court! What’s happening on our roads and in our legal system? The cyclist has since urged others to take out insurance. I’ve long thought that cyclists should be obliged to have insurance, largely to cover the costs if they damage a vehicle; though this case has just fed into the claim culture, something the innocent cyclist wanted to avoid.

Personally I’d welcome an introduction of a jaywalking charge, though I recognise that’s not going to happen. As traffic systems become more complex, with different lanes and different traffic signals for motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians, everyone needs to obey traffic signals and respect the right of way. I’m thinking in particular of areas like Blackfriars where there are some sharp turns and where accidents are only avoided by most people being sensible.

We often complain about cyclists, but pedestrians sit at the bottom of the food chain and are a menace to everybody.  We’re all pedestrians sometimes, and most of us behave properly. Every day though, we see brain-dead zombies plugged into headphones, or staring at their phone, while crossing the road in front of us. The ones who aren’t listening to music can usually hear us coming, but electric vehicles are being fitted with artificial noise to help the zombies out. Of course they can’t hear cycles, even in the case above when the rider shouts out a warning and sounds an air horn.

We’re quick to see the differences between cab drivers and couriers, but there are similarities too. Emily Chappell’s book, What Goes Around, describes the realities of the job, and describes similar experiences she’s had with stupid pedestrians. I’d say it’s a tougher job than ours. No, I couldn’t do it, but I was once a motorcycle courier for a couple of years, and this book brought it all back. That was over thirty years ago I don’t remember it that clearly. I do remember it was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and thoroughly miserable in the rain.

It’s probably even worse as a cycle courier, exposed to the elements, and to the dangers of fast moving heavy machinery. It sounds all right in the summer, but it’s going to get unbearably hot and sweaty, and all you’ve got for protection is sun cream.

After some months I hated being a courier. I found it easier driving a cab. I did one job at a time, and wasn’t dependent on a temperamental controller handing out work and complaining when I wanted a lunch break. Many motorcycle couriers eventually did the Knowledge, as did I. The idea of being a taxi driver wouldn’t have come up had I not been a courier. One of Emily’s cycle courier friends also joined our ranks. She mentions discussing the best route from Manor House Station to Gibson Square with him.

Couriers and cab drivers are actually quite closely related. We’re all independent free-thinkers. I don’t consider myself part of regular society. I’ve had regular jobs, but I’m no longer tied to an office or part of the rat race. There’s a lot of movement in our job. We’re always going somewhere. We might not want to go somewhere, but we have a purpose. We’re getting paid for sightseeing and living on our wits.

The cyclists make a living with few resources: they ride around on tubes of metal and rubber, with a bag slung over their shoulders. They sprint into an office reception in their strange clothing, then disappear with an envelope to deliver. It’s so basic and pure. However some of us feel like outlaws, with our nicknames and healthy disregard for authority, the cycle fraternity really fit the bill. Both our jobs give those in more conventional careers something to talk about. Few people were interested in my previous life as a careers adviser, but people are interested in the lives of couriers and cab drivers: they want to know how we handle the traffic, what hours we work, and what celebrities we’ve met – when they start asking what we think of Uber we know it’s time to move on.

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Electric Warrior

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine)

 

Donald Trump called the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, a “stone cold loser” when he visited these shores in May. Although Trump was referring to violent crime rather than charging points for electric cabs, Sadiq really could prove to be a loser when the Mayoral elections come up next year.

While being quizzed by Conservative Assembly Member, Shaun Bailey, on the number of electrical charging points for taxis, Mr Khan said there were enough charging points “as things stand.” A rather cavalier comment, if I may say so. As of May 8th there were over 200 rapid charging points. This includes 72 dedicated to taxis. London boroughs have also installed over 1,000 lamp column charging points for overnight charging. There might just be enough charging points right now, but there are over 2,000 electric cabs in London and that number is growing fast. Around 40 new electric cabs are being bought every week. It’s the Mayor who told us to go electric and stopped us buying new diesels. It’s his responsibility to provide the infrastructure. If the self-styled electric warrior doesn’t see a problem looming, he’ll be caught out later on.

There are websites showing the location of charging points, but nobody should have to consult the internet to plan their re-fuelling. If people are currently driving around looking for points, it’s going to get worse if provision doesn’t keep up with demand. Then there’s the time spent waiting to charge up. An electric cab saves money on fuel, but not on time; and as we all know, time is money. I wouldn’t want to sit around for half an hour just to save a couple of quid. The situation isn’t so bad for the civilian car driver who doesn’t clock up the kind of miles that a taxi does. Many of us need to drive many miles before we can even start work. I burn up 70 miles just driving into Central London and back, then add another 60 or 70 miles in stop-start urban traffic. The current TXE has a petrol engine back-up, but it would still need a daily charge. Forthcoming electric taxis probably won’t have a petrol back-up. I could easily run out of power on the M1 going home, or if I trap a roader late on in the day.

A few years ago we were told we’d have a choice of five new taxi models to choose from. We still only have one. We were meant to have a new Nissan, which was said to have a better range. This model is meant to be coming out this summer, but they’ve been saying that for years.

The cost of the vehicle is a big factor too. We don’t know how much any new cab is going to cost. The TXE is out of the price range of many drivers, and I’m surprised they’ve sold so many. Who are buying these sixty-grand cabs? Clearly people who are working longer hours than I am. Will the TXE continue to sell well? It’s surely dependent on the Mayor’s attitude to charging. We need confidence that he’s committed to the electronic switchover, but we’re not getting it.

It’s inevitable that the current (current – get it?) price of charging will prove to be an introductory offer. The government will want to get the money back it’s losing on petrol and diesel tax. There could come a time when electrical re-fuelling becomes as expensive as diesel, but taking much longer to do. Anyway, that’s a matter for the government and whoever sails in her, to sort out in the coming years.  In the meantime, the Mayoral candidates need to be grilled on their plans for electrical charging. The people of London can then decide.

Cab families make up a fair chunk of the electorate. I’m unable to vote as I live well out of London, but I can’t afford to be smug as I’m as affected by many of the goings on within the M25 as those who live there (though I’m glad my Council Tax didn’t go towards Boris’s garden bridge project which had to be abandoned by the new Mayor in order to save further waste – to think Boris is likely to be our new Prime Minister in a couple of weeks!).

I hear Mr Khan is planning a no-car day in London on Sunday September 22nd in order to improve air quality. London’s air quality isn’t caused by extra traffic; it’s caused by daft road re-modelling. I assume he’s not including taxis and minicabs in the ban? If he does, we’ll know that he’s a loser who has really lost it.

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