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).

Carrots & Communication

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

An amusing news story caught my attention recently. Apparently supermarket bosses had been scratching their heads wondering why they were selling more carrots than they held in stock. What was going on? It transpired that people were using the self-scanning facility to pass off expensive fruit & veg as cheap old carrots. The shops have now installed CCTV trained on the self-service tills.

To speak truth, I’m no fan of carrots. I buy them for the rabbit, but I wouldn’t eat one myself. I pick out anything green or orange from my food, and if the cat or the rabbit doesn’t eat it, it goes in the bin.

I’ve always been an opponent of self-service supermarket tills, and I said as much in a piece I wrote not too long ago on the subject of driverless cabs. On the subject of automated taxis I argued that it wasn’t just about safety; it was also about how we are losing the personal touch. Technology used sensibly can make life easier and more pleasurable, but it can also come as a detriment to social cohesion and well-being. However many of us get irritated, or feel uncomfortable, with other people, most of us have a basic need for some degree of human contact (and this is from someone who is off the scale on introversion and has spent most of his life avoiding other people). Sometimes a welcoming smile or a cheery greeting can be enough. Having 50% of a supermarket’s tills given over to self-scanning is reasonable, but it’s going to be a soulless experience if all the human checkouts are replaced by machines. The carrot issue also highlights how technology can be exploited by both suppliers and consumers. In this case the consumers are de-frauding the suppliers.

Uber halted its testing of driverless cars earlier this year, after someone was tragically killed by one of its driverless cars during testing. The car was manned at the time, which is worrying. I expect you’re expecting a rant about Uber now, but no. It just got me thinking about communication and the social experience.

The service that a taxi driver provides can be impersonal. Some people like that, some don’t. We’re behind a bullet-proof partition, and the intercom doesn’t do a lot. London is a very noisy place, with roads full of cars, cabs, vans, motorcycles and buses. There are roadworks and building sites on almost every road you could mention (this is one reason why I wouldn’t move back to London after eighteen years’ of relative peace and quiet).

Drivers of the new electric cabs have an advantage with their quieter vehicles. It would be nice for all of us to hear our passengers speak, and even hold a normal conversation – as far as you can when someone’s talking to the back of your head. I prefer the old sliding partition we had on the FX4. The rule was we could only have a 4 ½ inch gap, but by removing the wooden block the partition could be slid open fully so we could talk to our passengers. I remember how put out I’d be if the passengers slid the partition closed. That’s what I mean about losing social contact. It doesn’t feel nice.

Some drivers neither want to be seen or heard. In my town of Leighton Buzzard, taxi drivers often obliterate the view by posting large notices on the partition. At least one driver here has covered the clear plastic almost entirely with cardboard, leaving a mere pillar box opening. Communication is definitely not encouraged, and it’s disconcerting.

I read something else which I found odd this week: under European rules (cough), new models of electric and hybrid vehicles are not allowed to run silently: they are obliged to have noise built into them, because pedestrians can’t hear them coming (people can’t hear a fifteen year old TX4 coming when they’re plugged in to an i-pod either). I’m resisting the temptation to shout “Health & Safety gone mad” but, well, really!

I’m always irritated by those attention-seeking drivers of high performance cars driving around making a racket. Maybe the new act of rebellion will be to drive as quietly as you can? Maybe not though, as the whole point is to have everybody looking at them.

Anyway, I’m off to Morrisons to stock up on truffles  … I mean carrots.

Leave a comment

Filed under Published Articles

Public Displays of Nudity

Nudes

Last Saturday I was driving through Piccadilly Circus, concentrating on trucking right, when the traffic came to a standstill. Turned out it was the day of that naked cycle ride. As I edged the cab forward they all came around me and I damn near had some bloke’s dick in my face. The Horror, the Horror! Thankfully I didn’t dream about it.

Strange thing public nudity. If one bloke does it he risks arrest, but if a hundred do it, everyone laughs about it and takes photos.

Anyway, upskirting; enjoy it while you can, as it looks like it might be banned – despite the objections from a Conservative MP. I can’t believe it’s still legal.

Great Expectations

Strangely, I’ve seen few English flags around for this year’s World Cup. Also, no-one’s saying how Eng-er-lund are going to do well – until the inevitable penalty shoot-out with Germany. Maybe we’ve tempered our expectations, and this will do the trick?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Comment/Opinion

Shopkeepers on Wheels

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine),

It hasn’t been easy for any of us over the last few years. Potential customers are still there, but they are spread across a range of competing transport providers. They always were, of course, but we’re so heavily outnumbered by private hire that it feels like we are losing ground. We just need to try to tempt a bigger chunk of custom over to our side. Easier said than done, I know.

Private hire aren’t having it all their own way though. The biggest threat to traditional private hire companies are Uber. We’re also threatened by Uber, to a lesser extent. The strange thing is that Uber’s own future is uncertain. While they’ve been crawling to TfL in an endeavour to get their licence back, they’ve been denied new licences in York and Brighton, and they have been made unwelcome in various other cities around the world. London is the accepted transport honey pot, though; the big prize. Regulations are slack on the private hire side, but taxi licencing requirements in London are still incredibly stringent, making the licence the hardest to get in the world – as we all know.

Provincial licensing authorities look to London to see how TfL react to Uber. Emboldened by TfL’s refusal to re-licence Uber, other cities now have the confidence to do what is right and stop them in their tracks. It’s scandalous that Uber are still allowed to operate having been unfit, though they could be in for another kicking should they lose their appeal against TfL later this month.

If Uber are re-licensed, either in London or elsewhere, they will have to make changes and their business model will be unsustainable. The current business model only works through saturating the market with drivers, covering up criminal activity and data breaches, and working in other people’s areas (there will still be London-licensed Uber drivers working in Brighton whatever happens after the inevitable Brighton appeal).

Workers in any industry assume the customers will always be there, but sometimes they’re not. Look at retail: Woolworths, BHS, and C&A disappeared from British high streets years’ ago, and other long-established retailers are struggling. At the time of writing, Mothercare and Marks and Spencer’s are both in trouble for failing to modernise and acknowledge a shift in shopping habits.

About twenty-five years’ ago, when I was a young butter boy, I remember reading an article by Monty Schiman. I believe the article was entitled Shopkeepers on Wheels. Yes, we need to think like shopkeepers, the better ones. Customers need to be valued and respected at all times. We need to give the people what they want, and we must move with the times. We need to provide a first class service at all times.

Some retailers get complacent and suddenly find themselves out of date. Marks & Spencer’s are still hanging on, but they recently announced store closures because people have switched to shopping online. M&S have often been criticised for being old-fashioned. Even as a twenty year old shopping in Romford, M&S held no interest for me. As I got older I’d shop there now and again, but it never became an exciting place to spend my valuable time. M&S was never a young person’s shop. Maybe we’re not a young person’s transport service with all that waving your hand in the air? There’s no longer any need to visit the high street to shop, nor to hail a cab. As customers desert the high street, those hardy souls who still venture into the outside world order transport on-line in the same way. Thankfully, the trade does have computerised booking apps. They aren’t as well-known as Uber, but with Uber weakened, they might help us regain custom.

If the terms “Taxi” and “Private Hire” are interchangeable in London, they are even more so in the provinces. I recently saw what we are up against. Following a boozy wedding in rural Oxfordshire, my wife and I needed to get to our guest house in South Oxford. With no cab ranks around, our hosts asked the barmaid to call us a taxi. What arrived was a mini-cab. Never mind, like most boozed-up members of the cab-riding public, we just wanted to get home. I have to say, the experience was faultless.

In a hurry to get off on the following, the missus asked a passing chef to help book us a taxi. It was a small guest house, but they had some kind of booking App on their wall. It looked a sophisticated piece of equipment, and not one I’d expect to see in a £75 guest house on Iffley Road. He pressed the button a few times, and told us a blue Toyota would be with us in three minutes.

We need to get our thinking caps on and think about how taxis are hailed generally. There are many towns and cities around the world where waving your hand is unusual. Maybe it’s just a London and New York thing? I’ve never waved a cab down in Leighton Buzzard where I live, and it was considered unusual in Northampton where I previously lived. It was all ranks and phones.

Is the solution to install booking Apps on walls? Maybe. The PH one in Oxford wasn’t Uber, it was a smaller private hire firm. I’m sure if modest private hire companies have the power, then we should have the ability to fix booking Apps on to London hotel walls.

Leave a comment

Filed under Published Articles

Russian Carrots

Allow me to Retort: News Items from the Cab Radio

 

GRENFELL TOWER

Initial reports suggest the tower was fine until the refurbishment in which unsafe, highly-flammable, cladding was installed. Was it Kensington & Chelsea Council’s fault, or the contractors? No-one is going to take responsibility. This one will drag on and become another Hillsborough. Nothing will be concluded until those responsible are dead or retired.

RUSSIA

I hope the World Cup is a successful (England win) and trouble-free event, but I fear the worst. Russian hooligans attacked England fans at the last Euros, and reports suggest they are planning bigger things on their own turf. Did you see that TV documentary some months’ ago? Fans of various Russian clubs arranged huge fights between themselves as a kind of training.

Things aren’t good diplomatically between Russia and…well, everyone really. Let’s hope they don’t shoot down the England team jet (like they didn’t do with that passenger jet over Ukraine), or poison the players with a nice samovar of nerve agent (like they didn’t do in Salisbury, London, and various other places).

CARROTS

I was amused by a recent news story: apparently supermarket bosses were wondering why they were selling more carrots than they had in stock. The reason was that folk had been passing expensive food items through the self-scanning facility and claiming they were carrots. The shops now have CCTV trained on the tills.

I can’t say I’m a fan of carrots. I pick anything green and orange out of a take-away and offer it to the pets. The rabbit eats all that boring stuff. The cat only eats carrots if I hide them in curry or chow mein.

Anyway, I’m off down to Morrisons to buy some truffles…

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Comment/Opinion

Electric Dreams

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

Something strange happened at the start of the year: electric charging points started to mushroom up all over London. The last time I wrote about electric cabs I believe there was one solitary rapid charger in the city. Now they’re everywhere!

To add to the excitement there are expected to be two additional models of electric taxi available by the end of the year. There are still price concerns, but at least the charging situation looks a bit better.

I’m sure many of us are waiting for a sustained improvement in trade before committing to a new cab, particularly with three models to compare. I’m hoping at least one of the new cabs will be affordable. I sigh with relief every year my high-mileage seven-year old TX4 gets through its annual inspection. I feel I’m riding my luck. Every year the dents and the paint blisters get worse. Every year I worry that the gearbox or engine will pack up, and I’ll be faced with the garage bill from hell, or the prospect of committing to several years of huge monthly payments on a new cab. Every year I promise myself a new cab if trade improves. Every year I think how nice it would be to actually hear what my passengers are saying to me.

At the moment though, the idea remains a range-extended pipe dream. I can’t afford the new LEVC offering. I don’t know enough about engines to risk the second-hand market, and if I struck now it’d be another dirty noisy diesel. Like it or not, the future is electric. A diesel cab will feel like the Flintstone’s car in a few years.

Diesel vehicle drivers are already being demonised. Some local authorities are starting to charge extra for parking, and in some areas of London, diesel vehicles aren’t allowed at all. Hackney and Islington have designated some ultra-low emission roads in the Shoreditch area. From July, nine roads will be verboten to petrol and diesel-powered vehicles. Can they legally do this? Who knows, but these directives are hard to challenge. Can we at least assume that every Hackney Council vehicle needing to drive down the banned streets will be electric? All road maintenance vehicles and dust carts? All the social workers and community nurses darting about from place to place. Will fire engines, police cars, and ambulances be exempt? (what fuel do emergency vehicles run on anyway?).

In these days of choice and cut-throat competition, I think the cab trade needs a distinctive vehicle in order to capture the public imagination. Most of the people I pick up at the weekends are tourists. Many cab aficionados want a taxi that looks and feels nothing like the car they have on their driveway at home. I’m not sure a van conversion is going to do it, but we’ll see what the Nissan Dynamo looks like in the summer. The other two models are unique enough. They’re different from the TX4, but they still look like taxis.

We’ll have to compare the range the different vehicles can cover before switching to petrol – and then ultimately running out of petrol and grinding to a halt. The Nissan Dynamo doesn’t come with a petrol engine at all (Will the RAC be equipped with mobile chargers?).  Reading about the new cabs and chargers in Taxi I was thinking about an account job I had recently: Pall Mall to Gatwick. It took one hour and fifty minutes to get there, then two and a half hours to drive eighty miles home to Bedfordshire on three congested motorways. An electric car driver could come unstuck on a run like that. It would have been unbearably stressful had I been worrying about running out of fuel.

Living forty miles from Central London I’ll certainly be researching charging points locally before committing. I haven’t seen any in Leighton Buzzard yet, though we do have electricity. And colour television. I suppose a slow charger will give me an excuse to sit in a pub for an hour or two, but that novelty will soon wear off. Even waiting around for half an hour every day is a no-no for me. That’s twenty-five minutes more than I currently spend re-fuelling. That’s technology going backwards, surely? I’ve no idea how home-charging works: do you just run an extension cable through your letter box like when you mow the lawn?

I’m not sure how much it costs to charge a taxi with electricity, but I assume the current price is an introductory offer. We’re still in the dark as to how much this whole electric cab project is going to cost us day to day. One thing that is only just being talked about is the fact that to be allowed to charge up with electricity at certain sites you need to take out a subscription – up to £32 per month from what I hear.

The last time I wrote about electric cabs, our biggest energy supplier, British Gas were about to put their electricity prices up by 12.5%. During the writing of this piece I heard that their customers on dual-fuel tariffs are facing an additional 5.5% rise, with both British Gas and N-Power. Maybe things will get more competitive? Possibly, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that by the time most of us have converted we’ll be spending about as much as we’re currently spending on re-fuelling with diesel. We’ll see. ..

Leave a comment

Filed under Published Articles

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Published Articles

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Published Articles