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Driving through a Winter Wonderland

(Original edit of my Christmas article for Taxi magazine).

Not long to go now. The Oxford Street Christmas lights have been on since November the 7th and Hyde Park has been turned into a winter wonderland. As the build-up starts, we cab drivers are starting to work the strangest, most unpredictable, month of the year.

Although January is my least favourite working month, December runs a close second. I enjoy Christmas itself, but working the run-up to the big day is always a pain. There are two main hazards: 1) Drunken passengers. 2) The traffic. Out of the two, it’s the traffic that I fear the most. I’ve worked quite a few Decembers in my time, but thankfully haven’t suffered too much from passengers who have had a few sherberts and have become difficult. I sometimes get caught out by the odd group of fired-up geezers on their way to annoy Arab families at the Winter Wonderland, but I’m usually OK. My anti-social passenger filter is set at paranoid mode all year round and not many get through the net, even in December. Then again, I don’t work at night. On the rare occasion I pick up account customers coming from an office party, they are as straight and buttoned-up as they are on any other day. No doubt they worry that we can get word to their boss if they create.

December starts well enough as there’s usually a fair bit of work around. Moving into the middle of the month things become fraught. This is the point where all the traffic-related problems you’ve read about in Taxi over the past eleven months all come together. Out of towners drive in to do their Christmas shopping and look at the lights, delivery vans park up everywhere oblivious to bus lane cameras, and there are stationary lines of buses caused by all of the above – and the perennial roadworks of course. We are invariably caught in heavy traffic with once a year riders in the back, counting coins in their hand as the meter ticks over each twenty pence increment. As the traffic grinds to a halt all we can do is apologise for London’s road schemes that have cost our customers more than they expected, and have caused us stress and embarrassment.

If you stick with it until Christmas Eve you’ll find things suddenly go dead in the last few days. The traffic lessens, but the work has gone. Every year we hope the work will reappear early in the new year. Sometimes it does.

We need to be security-minded at Christmas and not make ourselves targets for criminals. Some drivers leave phones, satnavs, and other valuables in their cabs while visiting a toilet, only to return to find the whole lot gone. We are targeted because we are thought of as carrying lots of cash. Permission to laugh: after paying for my daily diesel I often go home with less cash than I had in my float at the start of the day. Fortunately, the idea of taxis being money boxes on wheels is lessening now credit card acceptance is mandatory and we’re taking less cash. Taking your valuables with you on a break ensures you leave little of value apart from a few rolls of over-priced printer receipt paper (have the Monopolies Commission been made aware of the receipt roll scam?).

Maybe we should get into the spirit more and revive the tradition of putting up Christmas decorations in our cabs? A lot more drivers used to do so in the past, though I admit there are sound reasons for not putting tinsel up. It was a happy occasion when I gained my cab licence in 1988. I’d finished the Knowledge a couple of months previously, and I’d finally passed my taxi driving test on December 8th (at the 3rd attempt). I was asked to collect my badge a few hours later up at Penton Street. I had a spring in my step at Chapel Street Market when I bought some tinsel in anticipation of a very merry Christmas. The thing is, once Christmas is over it’s impossible to get rid of all the stray bits of tinsel. It’ll still be there next Christmas for sure. Had I never changed cabs I’d still be picking up bits of stray tinsel from 1988.

After Christmas it’s time to take stock and look forward to the year ahead. On a personal note, I ask myself if I can stop myself from making stupid mistakes this year? I’ve been improving, but in 2017 I still ended up on a speed awareness course in the summer, and I also copped a box junction violation after following a bus from Midland Road onto Euston Road.

When all the excitement of Christmas is over there’s the Kipper Season to endure. Soon, our working days will bring a bit more daylight, a bit more warmth, and hopefully a bit more income. The autumn of 2017 was encouraging, and a lot has happened this year that might help us improve things next year. Not least there is the ongoing saga of Uber. They’re not finished yet, but they are not going to be able to continue in the same way in the future. We received a lot of public support this year and for that we should be grateful. I’m sure there will be big changes and big challenges next year. We need to roll up our sleeves and make December the best we possibly can, then hit the new year running.  Have a great Christmas!

 

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Banged Up Abroad

Dear readers, should I ever be banged up in an Iranian jail, could somebody ask Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to help facilitate a prompt release? And please ask Mr Trump to comment on my plight on Twitter. My family will pay any officials off in Catalonian pesetas.

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What have the mini-cabs ever done for us?

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

With all the fuss over Uber, few commentators have stopped to ask how private hire started in the first place.

On the surface of it, all a taxi driver does is drive a customer from point A to point B for money.  A deceptively simple business plan, and one that has been exploited for many years by those unwilling to go through the effort of gaining a proper licence.

From the very beginning, London has led the way in safety, and has stipulated strict licensing rules.  As a result, your London cab driver will have had strict background checks, years of testing on his topographical knowledge, and will have passed an enhanced driving test.  The cabs are all 100% accessible and are built like tanks.  Fares are calculated by a meter that cannot be tampered with.  Taxi and private hire laws were developed over time in to keep the public safe.  They were generally adequate until the American invasion of Uber.

It’s the way of the world that where exists a successful service; someone will come along and undercut you.  Our trade was challenged in 1961 when Welbeck Motors emerged to muscle in on taxi work.  Welbeck flooded the streets with a fleet of red Renault Dauphines, and exploited technology by using two-way radios.  The company secured financial backing, and lobbied for the support of Members of Parliament to run a “mini-taxi” service.  They didn’t receive explicit approval, but they had sections of the press on their side.

There are clearly parallels with modern day Uber, where lower overheads and lax restrictions allowed mini-cab operators to undercut taxis and work to lower standards of safety and driver training.  Welbeck Motors and Uber both had money behind them which they used to influence politicians and the media.  I’d imagine that Welbeck were seen as trendy and as progressive as Uber when they arrived on our shores.

Although Welbeck Motors went into liquidation in 1965, other interested parties were waiting in the wings to exploit loopholes in stringent Hackney Carriage Laws and create a second tier cab service using two-way radio.

Drivers were recruited to mini-cab firms, typically operating out of doorways. They weren’t officially licensed, but so long as they were pre-booked and their journeys were logged they could operate legally.

Mini-cab drivers and vehicles were eventually licensed by the Public Carriage Office in 2000.  Some firms got their acts together and ran their businesses professionally, while other ones folded.

In London, there have been no restrictions on the number of private hire licenses issued.   In the case of taxis, numbers have risen very slowly over the years, kept down naturally by the Knowledge process.  Suburban taxi licences were suspended for a while due to over-supply, but private hire licences have continued to be issued in huge numbers – despite over-supply!  In order to service the Uber organisation, by 2016, several hundred licences a week were being issued (licensing has slowed in 2017).

If hundreds of taxi licences were being issued each week, there would be angry talk about congestion and pollution.  Many thousands of extra taxis on the streets would be noticed.    You barely notice mini-cabs.  London mini-cabs don’t have plates and roof signs as in the rest of the country.  Signage is pretty low key if it exists at all, and the private hire licence sticker on the back window is virtually unreadable.  It’s often disguised further by the tinted glass that TfL allow private hire vehicles to have, but not taxis.

The private hire industry can always undercut taxis on price because of lower running costs.  London taxis have had to be purpose-built in order to conform to stringent safety standards – and the famous twenty-five foot turning circle (I’m unsure if this applied in the days of horse-drawn cabs).  Crucially, private hire drivers enjoy a free reign in their choice of vehicle – and they don’t need to spend £55,600 on a new vehicle.

Uber showed that through over-supply they could promise a car within a few minutes of booking.  Until Uber’s business model was discussed in the wake of TfL re-licensing refusal, the general public didn’t know how it was done.  People now know how badly their drivers are treated.  They’ve heard about the dubious criminal records checks, and the covering-up of alleged sexual attacks.  People know that foreign operators can choose where to pay their tax, and this is not going to be in the UK.

Uber’s drivers don’t have to reach the earning targets that lured them in as they can claim benefits to top-up their income.  The drivers are also now aware of the con.  They are dependent on the provision of work, but they have been classed as self-employed.  If Uber lose their appeal against the ruling that their drivers are actually employees it could cost the operator tens of thousands of pounds just to pay National Insurance for 50,000 of its British drivers.  This is just one of Uber’s current problems.

Traditional private hire companies tick over, but Uber over-reached themselves.  Like Welbeck at the start of the 1960s, Uber are finding out that short cuts don’t work.  They have failed to retain the goodwill of their drivers, or the confidence of the public.  It’s only a matter of time before its investors wash the toxins off their hands and move on to the Next Big Thing.

 

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War is Over?

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. Some edits were made in the published version).

I sure picked the right week to quit talking about Uber:  but it’s the big issue of the day, and it’s going to continue for some time yet.  So, here are just a few thoughts about TfL’s decision not to renew Uber’s licence.

Firstly, Uber should never have been licensed in the first place.  They call themselves a tech company, yet they were licensed as a private hire operator.  Either they are a tech firm incorrectly licenced, or they are a PH operator, subject to the responsibilities that they have so far evaded.  Either way, their licence is in breach.  It was clear Uber intended to ply for immediate hire through their app, and they even admitted that they don’t take advance bookings!  If they don’t take advance bookings, they are operating illegally, as private hire cars must be pre-booked.  They admit they still don’t have a landline on which they can be contacted:  as far as I understand it, this is a legal requirement for an operator.

TfL have been quiet about what constitutes plying for hire, because any court case will highlight how negligent TfL have been.  TfL knew Uber should never have been licenced, and when the bad publicity started, they tried desperately to tighten up on them.  Unfortunately, TfL were then hampered by Dave Cameron and his pals’ cosy relationship with the Uber organisation.

Many people think Uber will make concessions in order to be re-licensed, and that this is just a shot across the bows.  Possibly, but what some people forget is that Uber have already had the warning shots:  they were given four months in which to improve things.  They were expected to use that time wisely and to get their house in order.  Uber’s arrogance was such that they behaved even worse.  When it transpired they were covering up sexual assault allegations, things got serious and there was an increasing public clamour for something to be done.

I can understand why people use Uber, but did they really think that if Uber ever became the dominant force in the taxi and private hire world, their low prices would remain?  Surge pricing isn’t just for Christmas, tube strikes and after terrorist attacks.  Their supporters think Uber have a status somewhere between a mini-cab and a taxi.  There is no in-between.  They are a mini-cab, and they are driven my mini-cab drivers.  As one caller to LBC put it:  they are a mini-cab company with good PR.  They are subject to the same rules that all mini-cab operators must comply with.

Personally I think this is going to drag on for as long as Brexit.  I allowed myself a celebratory light ale when I heard the news, but most of us are realistic to know that this isn’t the end.  It might be the beginning of the end though.  They’re not gone yet, but they are weakened, possibly fatally.  I don’t see how they can carry operating in the same way now

Before TfLs decision turned the spotlight on Uber’s affairs, many people thought it was just taxi drivers whingeing.  The general public aren’t particularly interested in what constitutes plying for hire, whether a mobile phone can be used as a taxi meter, or whether a London-licensed mini-cab can legally work in Brighton.

People now have a bit more awareness of the taxi and private hire trades, and the roles and responsibilities within them.  People know there are issues over Uber drivers’ insurance, questions over their criminal record checking, and that Uber were picking and choosing what criminal allegations to mention to the police.  This came from the police themselves, who are thoroughly fed up with them.  These were the issues that made people sit up and think.  Everyone can now see how government interference and having investors in high places has protected them.  Using a footballing metaphor, Uber lost the dressing room.

People can see that the headlines on taxi magazines were true:  Uber haven’t been checking criminal records properly.  They really were ignoring criminal allegations.  An Uber driver really did try to cut someone’s head off at Leytonstone Station while shouting “Allahu Akbar.”  Another was nicked after waving a samurai sword around outside Buckingham Palace.  Those with a conscience can see how they are exploiting not just tax and VAT loopholes and a lax licensing regime, but also its drivers – who they want to replace with driverless cars ASAP.  LBCs James O’Brien likens Uber to a Victorian mill owner.  I like the analogy, although mill owners were locally-based and paid their taxes in the UK.

Have Uber’s investors actually made any money yet?  They must be getting very nervous.  Very nervous.  And their corporate account holders.  It might even make Tesco think about which partner organisations it promotes.  I think the biggest game-changer will be when their investors cash in their chips and Uber are starved of funds.  How many lawsuits are they currently involved in?  This sort of thing isn’t cheap.

Private hire licensing had already slowed.  There will be even fewer drivers clamouring to join Uber now, and many will be trickling back to the mini-cab companies from whence they came.  Even if Uber were re-licensed today, they would find it hard to provide the same level of service as before.  Uber work on over-supply, and they will find it harder to saturate the market when its drivers desert a sinking ship.  As for our future, we need to raise our game and constantly guard against complacency.  TfL have recently shown they’re wise to dubious new start-ups, such as Taxify, but others will come and try it on.  We need to be ready.  When the war is over and the dust has settled, the public will decide who are the best.

 

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Complying with the Regime

(This week, I compare TfL with North Korea – I think I can safely say I won’t be working for TfL again.  This is my original edit and original title of article published in Taxi magazine).

I always chuckle to myself when I see a copy of Taxi left on the back shelf of a cab.  The magazine is casually arranged to look like it’s been left there accidently, but the headline revealing Uber-related crime statistics gives the game away:  a point is being made.

Earlier this year, some drivers started displaying the esteemed LTDA publication Taxi – or a tabloid newspaper – on the back shelf of their cabs whenever it carried a prominent headline about our Uber friends.  And there have been plenty of headlines:  the Cameron government pressurising Boris to leave Uber alone; Uber drivers implicated in terrorist attacks; and the shocking Uber-related sex crime figures that few people want the public to know.  Factual reports, but unpalatable to those charged with the responsibility of doing something about them.

It’s good that TfL have expanded their army of enforcement officers, but they took things too far when they accused a driver of having “unauthorised signage” and removed a copy of Taxi from the back shelf of a cab on Harrods rank.  They felt the headline “Rapist Uber Driver Jailed for 12 Years” was “misleading” and “not TfL’s belief!”  The headline was a fact, not an opinion:  it wasn’t open to the charge of being misleading.  The Harrods driver was actually accused of not agreeing with the opinion of two TfL enforcement officers.  I don’t see how TfL can take any action against a driver displaying unapproved materials:  how can they prove a magazine wasn’t left there by a passenger?

Are TfL spooks officially called enforcement officers or compliance officers?  I’m not sure, but both titles sound rather militaristic and scary:  what are they enforcing?  What must we comply with:  the opinions of TfL staff?

Where else do we hear about people being intimidated for holding views contrary to the regime?…  Ah yes, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.  When you think about it, North Korea and TfL are quite similar:  both regimes supress free speech and operate a totalitarian approach; and their top people have delusions of grandeur.  And far reaching tentacles.

For a London transport licensing body, TfL have some strange outposts.  I’m sure we’ve all received TfL documents originating from Sheffield.  As a knowledge examiner I had to make phone calls to Sheffield to get clearance to use the photocopier.  And it took a suspiciously long time to get security clearance and finally obtain my laminated identity card: “007:  licensed to print A4 sheets in black & white.”  If TfL operate out of Sheffield, why not further afield?   Maybe they have an office in North Korea?

Has anyone heard from the harassed driver since this sorry incident?  Perhaps he was whisked away to Pyongyang under the cover of darkness, and is currently undergoing interrogation and brain-washing?  I imagine grainy images of the arrested driver being shown on North Korean TV.  In a stilted voice, and with a glazed expression, he can warn others thinking of displaying subversive publications on the back shelves of their cabs.  With his face perhaps showing evidence of confessing his crimes under duress, he can assure us that the regime is firm but fair:  “I’m not being harmed by the regime…”  After ideological re-education he could well be transported back to London, his memory skilfully wiped by James Bond villain-type scientists.  He will then be free to take his place as a servant of the regime.  He might even be turned into becoming an enforcement officer himself.

Have any other drivers disappeared?  There are cab drivers I used to see regularly in the caffs who I don’t see any more.  Perhaps they’ve retired?  Perhaps they’ve gone to the great cab rank in the sky?  Or their disappearance could point to something more sinister.  Thinking about it, some of them were prone to express opinions contrary to the regime.

Following the Harrods bust, I’ve noticed a lot more newspapers and magazines on the back shelves of cabs displaying contentious headlines.  The LTDA, and the newspapers, continue to supply headlines on the shortcomings of Uber – and the LTDA advan is out and about spreading warnings of Uber even further.  Transport for London’s censorship didn’t really work, did it?

TfLs role is as a licensing body; not as a censor or an enforcer of political correctness.  As for drivers wishing to take things further, is there any chance they can flash up any contentious headlines on those illuminated roof signs?

 

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Follow that Bus!

(original edit of article written for Taxi magazine, with original title).

We were told access to Bank Junction was denied to taxis because of safety concerns, but we all know it’s really about TfL protecting bus timings – and making a bit of money on the side.  If it was about safety they’d realise it was more hazardous having taxis, mini-cabs and vans tearing around Lothbury and Bartholomew Lane to by-pass Bank Junction, than to have vehicles forming an orderly queue at the lights at Poultry.

The authorities won’t tell us how many cabs are involved in accident statistics, but bus accident figures are high.  Twenty-five people have died in bus-related incidents in London over the last two years, mostly pedestrians.  Around 12,000 people were injured.  Incredibly, the bus companies have targets for punctuality, but not for reducing accidents.  Driving a bus must be the hardest , most hazardous, job in London.  Their drivers are under immense pressure, and have many distractions as they go about their work.

I’m not sure if buses still have an Inspector Blake-type figure telling drivers to “Get that bus out!”, but bus operators clearly have their work cut out keeping to timetables.  Timings are affected because of madcap road remodelling projects, and by allowing multiple road and building works to close roads at the same time.  The bus companies are controlled by TfL, who have allowed the chaos in the first place.  TfL licence cabs as well as buses, but we get few concessions:  they only look after bus drivers and cyclists.

Timings are important to the bus companies because they are losing customers.  Half empty buses crawl along like a solid block of red on Regent Street, then queue to clear junctions like Oxford Circus, or to block everyone else at Piccadilly Circus.  Many of the roads buses use have been narrowed, making it impossible to get past them.  It’s not their fault, it’s the system.  I shudder when I see a bus bound for Streatham or Crystal Palace.  We sometimes grumble about going into the Deep South, but imagine what it must be like dragging a bus through Camberwell and Brixton.  Or sitting on one as a passenger.

I’m more a West End than a City man, but the closure of Bank Junction impacted on me when I took an account customer from St James’s Square to the Mansion House for a function.  I didn’t panic because I knew I could swing around into Bucklesbury before being confronted by the blue warning signs.  However, Bucklesbury was closed and I had to discharge my dinner-suited gent next to a building site, and amongst a gaggle of mini-cabs that had done the same thing.  If there’s another entrance to the Mansion House outside the exclusion zone I’m not aware of it.  How do we access Number One Lombard Street or the Ned Hotel?  How do we get a wheelchair there?  We’d been making great strides in making buildings accessible, but things are being reversed in the misguided name of safety.

Further west I’ve noticed bollards blocking the entrance to the Lyceum Theatre too.  And where does safety fit in with allowing the drivers of the number 3 bus to park up for their break on the cycle Lane in Jermyn Street?.

I’m dismayed people have been fined for driving into Cornhill from Leadenhall Street.  I also thought the warning sign referred to the section further towards Bank Junction.  The City of London notification concerning the closure features a map.  It’s in different colours.  It reminds me of the maps we received prior to the Olympics.  Maybe I’m being over-cynical but both maps gave the impression they were designed to confuse us.  The exclusion zone is in red, and the “Access Only” sector is coloured blue.  This looks like you can drive into Cornhill to access the Royal Exchange.  The map also gives the impression you can drive into Cornhill and leave by Finch Lane before you hit the red section.  I sincerely hope those drivers fined will get their money back with an apology.

You can do what you want at the weekend, so for the purposes of research I drove around there the other weekend.  It seems you can access Cornhill from a left turn from Threadneedle Street.  I couldn’t check the signage coming into Cornhill from Leadenhall Street as the road was closed.  It’s only open two days a week, and it was closed!

Motorists have lost an incredible amount of road space over the last couple of years.  The East-West Cycle Superhighway is congested most of the time, even at the weekends.  If the traffic is bad driving from Westminster to the Tower we need to think twice before diverting away into quieter streets.  With Bank Junction out of bounds, we know we are likely to get caught in heavy traffic in Eastcheap.

The recent spate of road closures are meant to be about safety, but the congestion is causing pollution, which is killing people.  The Ambulance service has complained that they can’t get past on emergency calls.  This is also killing people.  It’s not for safety, it’s against taxis – and other motorists. The closure of Bank Junction is only a trial, but from day one it was a cash from cameras scheme, bringing in a whopping 16K an hour!  It’s generating money for nothing, and we’re paying for it.

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New Electric Taxi: £55,600 (+interest)

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

Are we ready for the electric revolution?

The new electric cab has arrived, priced at £55,600.  If I buy one, will I ever get my money back?  The makers say the average cab driver could save £100 a week on fuel.  By this reckoning I would save even more as a high fuel-user living thirty-five miles out of London.  But there are some things I’m uncertain about:  where are the charging points?  Will the price of electricity sky-rocket in the wake of the emission-free revolution?

One factor that’s not talked about much is the government’s interest in going electric.  Most of the price of a litre of diesel goes to the government in tax.  If everyone goes electric, the government will be losing a lot of revenue:  that’s why the government keep people drinking, smoking and gambling; so they can make money out of them.  Will they put a higher tax on electricity?  Recently, British Gas raised their electricity prices by 12.5%.  Are higher prices and taxes the way forward?  We have little choice but to use electricity in our homes.  If our vehicles become dependent on electricity they will have an even bigger mandate to charge us what they like.

I still see few car charging points around: I thought there would be hundreds of them in London by now.  Are there any rapid charging points in London yet?  There aren’t many slow ones.  I’ve seen a few around Berkerley Square but I can’t spend several hours a day waiting for my cab to be charged up on a working day.  Surely, there will need to be whole streets dedicated to rapid car-charging bays if there is to be a serious switch to electric vehicles – maybe use the stretch of Harrow Road from the Metropole to the Paddington ramp?  I’ve not seen any in my town, so that’s a negative for me.

It’s going to take many years for every London taxis to be converted.  During the long transition period we will surely see the number of charging points increase.  We’ll also see a decrease in the number of conventional fuel stations.  There could come a middle period where neither electric nor diesel drivers find adequate re-fuelling facilities.

There’s a gap in my education, and I’ve no idea how electricity is produced.  The National Grid say we are becoming increasingly reliant on imported electricity.  I didn’t know electricity was something that’s transported around Europe on a lorry – and by mostly foreign-owned companies.  In Brexit Britain, I don’t like the sound of that.  Transport for London research is reported to have said that Britain would need up to twenty new power stations to service the electric vehicle revolution.  It’ll take more than a few fields full of plastic windmills then?  I notice many new motorways no longer have a continuous hard shoulder.  They could be useful in the future for proving sanctuary to vehicles caught short of electricity.

On one hand TfL see problems with providing enough electricity and charging points; but on the other they are forcing us to buy electric cabs!

There’s even doubt in some quarters whether electric vehicles are actually much greener than current models.  I understand that fine particle pollution is caused by brake linings and tyres.  If electric vehicles are cleaner than conventional ones, how about giving us some carrot to go with the stick, and allow electric taxis to use Bank Junction?

The price tag is going to put drivers off, as is the cost of finance.  The £55,600 cash price is only the start of it.  Many of us would like to buy a new cab, but we’re not earning enough to put our faith in such an expensive new vehicle, with unresolved worries about range and charging.

I wondered at first if the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC) was hoping was to sell most of their new taxis abroad, but using us as guinea pigs first.  But I can’t believe that taxi drivers in other countries are doing any better than we are.  If they are, maybe I should study for the Knowledge of Baku, Azerbaijan.  Have other countries sorted out their charging points?

No, it seems the LEVC think they are onto a winner with us in the UK.  They must be frustrated over the lack of charging points too, but have faith that things will improve.  Apparently, the electric cab can run to Scotland and back without charging.  I make it about 800 miles to Glasgow.  This cab would allow me to drive from Bedfordshire into London for a day’s work for almost a full week.  The battery is guaranteed for five years, but should last about 15 years.  I’m still sceptical, but if the future really is electric, maybe we should give LEVC the benefit of the doubt?  If the new cab fails to deliver on its promises, there’s nowhere to hide.

Then again, maybe we should think further ahead and forget about the electric car revolution completely.  Aren’t we meant to be calling up self-driving pods in a few years’ time?

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