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).

Today in Brexit-Land…

Mr Corbyn still refuses to talk to Mrs May. He’s too busy talking to The IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah, and President Assad.

The EU are going to commission Mr Trump to build his wall in Ireland.

Er, that’s it…

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New Year Reflections

(New Year article written for Taxi magazine).

The New Year is a time for reflection. We look over the past year: what went well, what went badly; and what our hopes are for the coming year. Work-wise, if you’ve been in the same job for a while you tend to compare and contrast with previous years.

December 2018 marked thirty years since I gained my first green badge. Yes, I’m on my second. Those who are familiar with my story know I left the cab trade in the 1990s to do other things, and foolishly neglected to renew my cab licence. During the 90s I attended various colleges and universities and eventually became a Careers Adviser. I didn’t think I’d drive a cab again and I didn’t keep up to date with what was happening in the trade (the Blur v Oasis Britpop feud was a big event for students of the mid-90s: I had other distractions). I left London for good in 1999, but was disillusioned when I entered the so-called professional world. I soon wanted my freedom back. I started the Knowledge again in 2010, and gained my second licence four months later through a Knowledge re-test with the legendary Mr Wilkin.

When I think back to December 1988 and beyond, things are very hazy. I remember my decision to go on the Knowledge – a surprising one considering I couldn’t even drive – and I remember riding runs on my Vespa and attending Knowledge Point School. I even remember the memory tricks the school taught me. Knowledge Point students of my generation may recall the phrase “Skin Percy’s Liver” used in order to remember the running order of Skinner Street, Percival Street and Lever Street; or the “Place Your Primrose Over Cyril’s Parked Connaught” phrase used to remember the mansion blocks on Prince of Wales Drive (answers on a postcard, please…). I sometimes wonder how I got through the Knowledge, as I have the memory span of a goldfish. Some drivers of my time can remember what questions they were asked on Appearances. I don’t even remember which examiner gave me my Req.

I remember my first job though: it was a young lady going from Theobalds Road to Victoria. I remember how my new job was making me tired, and how I’d go home after a few hours in my first week. The traffic flowed easier in the late-80s, but perhaps not as freely as we like to remember. Cash from Cameras was in its infancy, but the clamping units were feared by everyone.

I remember the constant breakdowns, and how the cab would fail to start in the winter and over-heat in the summer. I remember how the cabs I drove were woefully underpowered and wouldn’t go up steep hills. The cabs are better now, but the taxi trade barely reached the twentieth century until the arrival of the Fairway. Drivers still have an understandable affection for this model.

Until the recession in around 1990 I’d circulate around St James’s and Mayfair. I rarely used ranks because I didn’t need to. Picking up the occasional celebrity added a bit of excitement. I can still see George Best in his leather jacket. He was a well-known figure to drivers in Mayfair and I picked him up twice on Curzon Street. He was nothing like the media portrayal of the Manchester United legend as a hell-raiser. I found him quiet and friendly. The actor Stewart Grainger, who I also picked up in Curzon Street could well have been a real hell-raiser. He didn’t stop talking. As we arrived at his destination on Fulham Broadway he gave his opinion that the place was a “sh*thole”.  Another legend was Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin: a laid-back guy who wanted to talk about the TV programme he’d watched the previous night. Many film and TV starts rode in my cab in the early days:  Richard Harris, Rita Tushingham, Susan Hampshire, the two ladies from Birds of a Feather; and a particular favourite, Spider from Coronation Street.

There were around 40,000 minicabs in London. They didn’t noticeably infringe on my livelihood as a day man, but night drivers had problems with blokes in cars touting illegally for work. Minicabs weren’t licensed back then, but they were allowed to operate so long as they were booked through an operator and didn’t stop for people on the street. There aren’t many more taxi drivers now than there were in 1990, but there now around 114,000 minicabs, and many of these are exploiting a weak licensing body in order to respond to immediate hiring through technology.

OK, let’s not get too upset about that as we say goodbye to 2018. I’m confident things will swing back our way a bit in the New Year. We need to go into the New Year with a bit of pride and with the determination to do our bit to promote our trade. In 2019 I’ll be spending time filling in on-line consultations over changes to road systems. Most questionnaires don’t take long to complete and it’s essential we give those making our work more difficult our views – and patiently and without rudeness. TfL listen to no-one unless forced to, but the Oxford Street and Swiss Cottage plans were sent back for revision in 2018. We need more unity to keep the trade strong: class action such as the Mischon de Reya Cabbie Group Action could well be the way forward. Our mantra for 2019 could be “Assertive, but not Aggressive.” We have to be very careful to keep our house in order and keep the public on our side.

 

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The Book They Tried to Ban!

Pubcat London Taxi Tails

This should link to the YPD Bookshop

  • Kim Jong Un and the TfL Dictatorship
  • I Enjoyed the Knowledge so much I did it twice!
  • Why the Elephant & Castle gyratory is like a Bowl of Washing Up
  • The Truth about Cats & Dogs
  • Beware Driver-less Planes Operated by Uber
  • Discover your Inner-Millwall Supporter
  • Careers Adviser, Advise Thyself: Disillusionment with the Professional World
  • Drowning by Numbers and a Fear of Sharks
  • The Day the Wife Brought a Ghost Back from London
  • Arab Girls on Selfridges Cosmetics Floor (Guide to Air Fresheners)
  • Football and the Taxi Driver
  • My Cat’s got ADHD
  • How Listening to Motorhead Can Result in a Speed Awareness Course

I’m pleased to announce that my book has now gone live! I haven’t any promotional materials to put on the t’internet yet, apart from whatever comes up on the links above & below.

It’s available from the YPD bookshop at…

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Christmas Nativity: A Modern Reading

“And lo, three wise men looked up, and did see a drone over the village of Gat-Wick”

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Driverless minicabs (part 79)

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

I had a good laugh at the headline in Taxi on October 3oth: “Addison Lee Plans Driverless Minicabs by 2021.” I checked to see if it was April Fool’s Day, but no; our old private hire friends Addison Lee reckon they’ll be rolling out driverless cars within three years. It was almost Halloween, but I wasn’t spooked by ALs claims, as stories are regularly popping up about driverless cars and minicabs. They can all be driven off with a clove of garlic.

It’s true that companies with money to burn are still testing out driverless cars. British start-up FiveA1 said it’ll trial an autonomous ride-sharing service in the suburbs of London next year. Nice publicity stunt, Addison Lee and FiveA1; but it’ll come to nothing. The scariest organisation of them all, Uber, suspended testing when a woman was tragically killed by a driverless Uber car this March in Arizona. Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, is the voice of reason, saying he can’t see autonomous cars becoming a reality because of the challenges in real-world scenarios.

Real-world scenarios include being able to tell the difference between a rock in the road and a paper bag. Never mind Brexit, international boundaries make things more complicated too. Most of the technology is from the USA, and American software in driverless cars is unsuitable for use outside the USA. The artificial intelligence in American vehicles can’t spot black cabs and red buses because it hasn’t been programmed to recognise shapes not encountered on American roads. This could pose a problem in London. I daresay American software could be programmed eventually, but I still think the technology is some way off. Driverless cars will never be sophisticated enough to operate on British cities. Maybe pods could drive themselves up and down separate lanes alongside the boulevards of Milton Keynes, but they’d basically be trams. Or those monorails I fondly remember from holidays to Butlins in the 1960s. It won’t happen in London.

If a driverless car can’t spot a London bus, will it be able to spot traffic cones, plastic orange fencing, metal barriers, or bits of metal sticking out of those huge iron barriers that have blighted the area around Buckingham Palace for years? Will an autonomous car know to move over to avoid cycle lanes, or even cycles?

Will driverless technology be able to handle different environmental conditions? What about the weather? Will hail stones be identified as missiles? Will fog, rain, and large snowflakes slow things down? What about the wrong kind of leaves on the road?

Will a self-driven minicab be able to expertly park between two vehicles while a passenger uses a cashpoint? Will a self-driven taxi be able to park between two other cabs, fix an electrical cable between the vehicle and a charging point, and somehow make payment (assuming diesel vehicles have been bombed and banned by this time)?

Electric Cabs (part 94)

No, driverless cabs are aeons away. Electric cabs are already here though, and there are more on the roads every day. I really didn’t think the take-up would be so high, particularly with the high price of the current vehicle available, and concerns over the lack of charging points. Three-month waiting list!

My seven-year old TX4 had a new engine fitted in October, and a new gearbox in November. That was my savings gone.  It could be a lean Christmas, and I won’t by thinking about going electric for a good eighteen months. There should be more charging points by then, and hopefully a choice of vehicle (I presume self-driving cars would face the same problem in finding charging points?). The electric car project is realistic though. I see the future to be one of one-stop motorists’ centres: a combined charging station, supermarket and café. Maybe a service centre too. It’s all very exciting, but I can’t see the future of motoring without the driver.

I’ll look forward to the New Year with optimism, and with no driverless minicabs on the horizon, ever. For a change, I’ll finish with someone else’s opinion on the subject:  “This cannot be considered a mature technology if it cannot recognise a red bus but it can spot a Chevorolet.” This quote is from the aptly named MP, Tom Brake. No it’s really not April 1. As Noddy Holder customary says at this time of year, “it’s Christmas!” Have a large one.

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New Book (Robert Lordan)

…No, not my book, but my friend, Robert Lordan, had a book published earlier in the year. Robert also writes articles for Taxi magazine, and he’s an award-winning blogger – the golden boy of Time Out magazine to be sure.

His book is available through Amazon, Waterstones, and his own website.

My book is now available through York Publishing Services (YPD Bookshop). It might not reach Waterstone’s, and please don’t buy it though Amazon as it costs me commission.

 

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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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