Category Archives: Published Articles

Down at the Batcave

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

 

Some people think I must be a Knowledge genius because I used to be an examiner. I assure you that my knowledge of London is nothing special. As new roads are opened and (mostly) closed every week it’s a devil of a job to keep up with developments. I often use Knowledge website forums to keep on top of things. However much cab drivers think they keep up to date, Knowledge students are well ahead. While we were learning the new two-way system in Marylebone at our own pace, Knowledge students had already posted detailed maps of the affected area on forums and were discussing the matter furiously – and before their examiners caught up.

I never got to grips with some areas of London. I studied all the crescents of Notting Hill over thirty years ago, but still can’t remember them all. I also had problems with all those dead ends and roads running at funny angles in Pimlico. I’m sure I learnt them properly at the time, but the geography never stuck.

I know enough to get me out of trouble in these inner-London districts, but the outlying areas can still cause anxiety. For instance I dread getting a job to South-East London or the Far East. Anywhere past Canary Wharf sends the anxiety levels rocketing. Some time ago I took some people out to that scary industrial no-man’s land on the south side of the Blackwall Tunnel. I don’t know whether Tunnel Avenue is classed as East Greenwich, North Greenwich or Blackwall, but it’s not somewhere I learned on the Knowledge and it’s not somewhere I’d been to before. Anything involving the Blackwall Tunnel is fraught with anxiety. I once got into all kinds of bother when I missed the turn off to a hospital in Woolwich. Is the drop-off for the O2 Arena really at the bus stand?

East London is a mystery because I never go there: I’ve no idea if you can still use Abbotts Road, or if you can still drive the Devons Road route through Bow. Roads such as Devas Street and Twelvetrees Crescent remain in my consciousness from the Knowledge thirty years ago, but I don’t know if they still exist, or have any strategic use (and where’s Stepney Green gone? The last time I tried to get into it, I couldn’t find it.

You’d think I’d be comfortable with Stratford as the mighty West Ham play there. The truth is I rarely go to football now, and I can quite easily get lost walking from the Olympic Stadium to Stratford Station (I haven’t even attempted Hackney Wick Station). In the cab, I’ve found my way to Westfield and back a few times, but I recently had an anxious drive out to Stratford with some account customers. They were going to a meeting at a place called East Bay. If that means nothing to you, you’re in good company. I always thought it was a bit fanciful calling the area “Stratford City” but It’s another world up there, with smooth roads, bus routes, everything. I’m still not sure how I found my way to the M1 afterwards to go home. I don’t think I could replicate the route again.

The Batcave

Like a proper cab driver I spend my working day listening to talk radio. Some weeks ago, Robert Elms started a discussion about Lower Robert Street on his Notes & Queries phone-in. Robert jokingly said that cabbies used this road to show off. Not so: it’s actually a useful connect between the Strand area to the Embankment. I wasn’t aware of it on the Knowledge in the 80s, possibly because there were no website forums. I learnt it as an examiner about seven years ago. I read about it on a Knowledge web forum (only the vain examiners read Knowledge forums; usually to read what the students are saying about us). I drove down the road in order to see that it actually existed, then a little later on an account customer heading for the City from John Adam Street asked me to use it.

Cab drivers phoned Robert Elms to inform him that Lower Robert Street is known as The Batcave.  The Batcave is the only remaining street of its type in the area. In 1772 a complex of twenty-four grand houses was built. Named the Adelphi, the development was built on a slope down to the Thames. Under the houses were vaulted arches and underground streets, of which one was named Lower Robert Street – Charles Dickens even mentions the area in David Copperfield in 1850. As you can imagine, the subterranean arches became a den of crime and debauchery. There’s said to be a ghost; that of Poor Jenny, a murdered prostitute who lived and worked in The Batcave. The Batcave is now wisely closed between midnight and 7am. It’s a creepy place: more a narrow tunnel than a conventional street. One cab driver phoned in to say that when he drove through there his passengers started screaming because they thought they were being kidnapped!

Anyway, the Knowledge Boys on the forums know all about The Batcave. A great source of further information is Taxi contributor, Robert Lordan, whose View from the Mirror website will tell you everything you want to know, complete with lots of brilliant photos. For the ultimate experience though, try driving it yourself! The Knowledge Boys tell me it still exists.

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Access All Areas?

Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. For hard users only: this one’s a bit technical if you’re not used to driving in London.

 

People take taxis for many reasons: for work, for pleasure; and sometimes when they have little choice. Sometimes people have luggage they need to get across London to a rail station or airport. People need to make hospital appointments, and a taxi is often chosen because it’s fully accessible. Sometimes a cab is taken in an emergency. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing we sometimes thrive on the misfortune of others. More positively, a ride in a cab could be part of a holiday or a Christmas treat. The common denominator in every case is that the customer expects a door to door service. This is our unique selling point. Increasingly, our USP has become impossible to deliver.

Over the last few years the number of roads closed off to us has increased dramatically. The good work in making Russell Square two-way was undermined when other parts of Bloomsbury were closed off in 2015. Many people with limited mobility need to get around the many hospitals and clinics in the Bloomsbury area, and journeys have been made slower – and consequently more expensive – for them. It’s become virtually impossible to set down passengers in some streets, notably Tavistock Place. I’ve done a fair amount of Taxicard work on ComCab recently, but I wouldn’t relish trying to unload a wheelchair in this one-way, single lane, thoroughfare. In late-2018, more roads were blocked off around Bloomsbury Square and more banned turns came in. Lord knows how difficult things could become accessing the UCH if Tottenham Court Road is closed to taxis.

Many people with limited mobility rely on taxis to get them around: you wouldn’t believe how many Taxicard jobs involve West End theatres. It’s now impossible to load a wheelchair at the door of the Lyceum Theatre.

The Ned hotel in the City is inaccessible for most of the day. Last year, certain streets around Shoreditch were closed to motor vehicles at certain times of the day. Hardly a day goes by without streets being closed off; some of them destined never to be re-opened. The whole area around King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations is a mess. Goodsway eastbound has been closed for several months, with no indications when it might re-open. The sudden closure at the top of Judd Street has resulted in misery. There are no signs informing us of what’s happening, or whether it’ll ever re-open. Many vehicle drivers think they can use Mabledon Place to escape the misery, only to find they’re being forced to turn right. The authorities should have allowed a left turn to alleviate this problem, but no; as usual, they are keeping vehicles on the roads as long as possible, thus adding to congestion and pollution.

Things used to be so much easier. Allow me to put on my psychedelic rose-tinted specs as I reflect on the time when you used to be able to drive straight down from Gresham Street on to Southwark Bridge using King Street, Queen Street and Queen Street Place. Southwark Bridge is near enough impossible to access from the west. Blackfriars is little better. The closure of Stonecutter Street causes bus congestion in Charterhouse Street, and forces other folk aiming for the bridge to drive around the smaller streets around Tudor Street – when our progress isn’t hampered by giant cranes and orange barriers.

Al Fresco reminded us of the joys of St Bride’s Street in a recent Taxi article. Indeed, when I started out we used to be able to drive straight up St Bride’s Street into Shoe Lane from just off Ludgate Circus. St Bride’s Street is now closed to through traffic, except bikes. As I sit on the Goldman Sachs rank I watch cycles scattering the suits as they quite legally tear along the path alongside the office blocks. It’s painful watching lorries making deliveries and being forced to reverse out past the Boris Bike park, cab rank, motorcycle parking area, and huge piles of building materials. It’s a miserable road for anyone who has to access this hazardous little road.

Occasionally one-way streets are opened up to two-way traffic. Baker Street and Gloucester Place worked OK as one-way streets, but we now have to sit behind buses on a single lane and swerve in and out of Right Turn lanes. It’s probably too early to provide a definitive assessment of this system, but I daresay I could get 900 words out of it another time.

Any useful road is ruined eventually. The War on Diesel ensures that the pollution side of things will eventually lessen, but it’s going to be many years before we’ve all gone electric. By that time I don’t think there will be any roads worth using anyway.

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Minicabs & Minibuses

(Original edit of article written for this week’s edition of Taxi magazine).

 

The March 5th edition of Taxi informed us that: “An on-demand bus service allowing passengers to book their seat using an app is to be trialled by Transport for London”.

It’s unlike TfL to make things easier for bus travellers: some years ago they refused to accept cash payment, and even further back they slowed things down by making bus conductors redundant. This forced everyone to wait until everyone had boarded, scanned their cards, and the tourists had asked the driver to point out Primark on their maps, before moving off.

This is a new and exciting type of bus service though. In fact, it’s so new that I don’t think it’s a bus service at all. It’s an on-demand bus service booked through an app. In other words it’s private hire. It’s a minicab!

In a time when the taxi and private hire trades are looking for clarity as to their respective roles and responsibilities, the waters are muddied further by uncertainty. A taxi can be booked to and from a specific point, by apps and through radio circuits. They can also be hailed directly from the street or from designated ranks. Minicabs can be booked in the same way, though they aren’t allowed to respond to immediate hails (Uber, of course, work in a grey area, but they are essentially responding to immediate hailings via an app). Buses pick up and set down at regular intervals on a specified route. They work to timetables and specified fares.

We are told that customers will be able to book seats on a 14-seat minibus. There don’t seem to be bus stops, but convenient locations, including those not currently served by public transport. It still sounds like private hire to me.

TfL’s Director of Innovation (nice work if you can get it), Michael Hurwitz, wonders if the service will serve the Mayor’s Transport Strategy in reducing car dependency, and whether it “can be deployed to support the established bus network.” I don’t know: is the proposed new service supporting the established bus network, or is it undermining it? The London bus network is made up of several individual bus companies, licensed under the umbrella of TfL. We hear how the bus companies are already struggling as bus numbers are cut. Would these established bus companies lose further custom to the new service? And will there be more congestion if the new minibuses are stopping and starting on additional routes? (on roads thoughtfully narrowed by TfL?).

In questioning what constitutes a bus, we can look at other vehicles. For instance, what’s the legal definition of an ambulance? Some vehicles with “Ambulance” written on the side look like ambulances – y’know, those big yellow and green monstrosities resembling  Morrison’s delivery trucks, only noisier. Other ambulances are regular-sized cars. There are even ambulance cycles. I’m not sure how that works when you need to transport someone to hospital – give them a backy? I swear I once saw a minibus-type “Ambulance” displaying a private hire roundel.

We have cycle rickshaws the size of minis blocking up cycle lanes, and obstructing bus lanes. I recall observing these contraptions a good twenty-five years ago. Successive mayors said they’d do something about them, but they’re still here, and some of them are motorised! There are motorised cycles too – how are they allowed to use public roads?

What about the status of the road user? There is a proliferation of kids’-type scooters being ridden on roads and pavements. There’s also the occasional roller skater, skateboarder, or segeway rider:  why are they allowed to obstruct the public highway? How do we stand with insurance if we hit a bloke riding a plank of wood?

Finally a word about our taxis. As I had a new engine and gearbox fitted to my eight-year old TX4 last year I figured I’d abandon plans to part-exchange it before its licensing inspection in March. I then heard about TfL’s de-licensing scheme. This could provide me with a £10,000 windfall to put towards a new cab, and allow me to sell my redundant cab outside London. Two problems: I wanted to compare and contrast the prohibitively expensive LEVC cab with the slightly less outrageously-priced Nissan Dynamo. The Dynamo is still not available in London, so I’m in a bit of a limbo. Should I sell the cab anyway and rent a cab until I can buy a new electric one? The thing is, it could be another year before the Dynamo appears.

It’d be nice to get my hands on that £10,000 de-licensing fee though. What could I do with ten grand? Should I leave it untouched in the bank until a suitable new cab becomes available or spend a weekend at Cashino? With just a few weeks window before my cab’s licensing inspection I heard there was already a long queue of gamblers waiting to cash in their chips for a ten grand windfall. This trade is becoming quite a gamble.

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Access All Areas?

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine: hard users only…

People take taxis for many reasons: for work, for pleasure; and sometimes when they have little choice. Sometimes people have luggage they need to get across London to a rail station or airport. People need to make hospital appointments, and a taxi is often chosen because it’s fully accessible. Sometimes a cab is taken in an emergency. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing we sometimes thrive on the misfortune of others. More positively, a ride in a cab could be part of a holiday or a Christmas treat. The common denominator in every case is that the customer expects a door to door service. This is our unique selling point. Increasingly, our USP has become impossible to deliver.

Over the last few years the number of roads closed off to us has increased dramatically. The good work in making Russell Square two-way was undermined when other parts of Bloomsbury were closed off in 2015. Many people with limited mobility need to get around the many hospitals and clinics in the Bloomsbury area, and journeys have been made slower – and consequently more expensive – for them. It’s become virtually impossible to set down passengers in some streets, notably Tavistock Place. I’ve done a fair amount of Taxicard work on ComCab recently, but I wouldn’t relish trying to unload a wheelchair in this one-way, single lane, thoroughfare. In late-2018, more roads were blocked off around Bloomsbury Square and more banned turns came in. Lord knows how difficult things could become accessing the UCH if Tottenham Court Road is closed to taxis.

Many people with limited mobility rely on taxis to get them around: you wouldn’t believe how many Taxicard jobs involve West End theatres. It’s now impossible to load a wheelchair at the door of the Lyceum Theatre.

The Ned hotel in the City is inaccessible for most of the day. Last year, certain streets around Shoreditch were closed to motor vehicles at certain times of the day. Hardly a day goes by without streets being closed off; some of them destined never to be re-opened. The whole area around King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations is a mess. Goodsway eastbound has been closed for several months, with no indications when it might re-open. The sudden closure at the top of Judd Street has resulted in misery. There are no signs informing us of what’s happening, or whether it’ll ever re-open. Many vehicle drivers think they can use Mabledon Place to escape the misery, only to find they’re being forced to turn right. The authorities should have allowed a left turn to alleviate this problem, but no; as usual, they are keeping vehicles on the roads as long as possible, thus adding to congestion and pollution.

Things used to be so much easier. Allow me to put on my psychedelic rose-tinted specs as I reflect on the time when you used to be able to drive straight down from Gresham Street on to Southwark Bridge using King Street, Queen Street and Queen Street Place. Southwark Bridge is near enough impossible to access from the west. Blackfriars is little better. The closure of Stonecutter Street causes bus congestion in Charterhouse Street, and forces other folk aiming for the bridge to drive around the smaller streets around Tudor Street – when our progress isn’t hampered by giant cranes and orange barriers.

Al Fresco reminded us of the joys of St Bride’s Street in a recent Taxi article. Indeed, when I started out we used to be able to drive straight up St Bride’s Street into Shoe Lane from just off Ludgate Circus. St Bride’s Street is now closed to through traffic, except bikes. As I sit on the Goldman Sachs rank I watch cycles scattering the suits as they quite legally tear along the path alongside the office blocks. It’s painful watching lorries making deliveries and being forced to reverse out past the Boris Bike park, cab rank, motorcycle parking area, and huge piles of building materials. It’s a miserable road for anyone who has to access this hazardous little road.

Occasionally one-way streets are opened up to two-way traffic. Baker Street and Gloucester Place worked OK as one-way streets, but we now have to sit behind buses on a single lane and swerve in and out of Right Turn lanes. It’s probably too early to provide a definitive assessment of this system, but I daresay I could get 900 words out of it another time.

Any useful road is ruined eventually. The War on Diesel ensures that the pollution side of things will eventually lessen, but it’s going to be many years before we’ve all gone electric. By that time I don’t think there will be any roads worth using anyway.

 

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The More Things Change…

(Original edit of article published in Taxi magazine this week).

Although I have my own book to promote, I always read the books others have written about the cab trade. One of my favourite writers is Maurice Levinson. Maurice was editor of Taxi when he published The Taxi Game in 1973.

My writer friend, Robert Lordan, recently lent me a copy of Maurice’s earlier book, Taxi! This yellowing hardback hails from 1963 (priced at fifteen shillings). Robert has a book about the Knowledge of London out, so we were both eager to read about things were in the cab trade in earlier times. We weren’t sure a fifty-six year old book would have any relevance to the cab drivers of today, but I was pleasantly surprised. The author’s sense of humour is in full flow, and the whole thing reads as easily and naturally as any modern book. What struck me most is how many of the issues the trade faced in the sixties still apply now.

The back cover blurb gives an indication where Mr Levinson is coming from: “His present occupation, and his pet hatred, is driving a taxi; his ambition is to stop driving a taxi.” At least you know you’re going to get the truth, and the truth according to Levinson is highly informative, and often very funny.

Some things have changed over the years, others haven’t. I was struck how things have changed for Knowledge applicants. Our own Alf Townsend can tell us how things were for Knowledge Boys in the old days. Every time I read Alf books I’m shouting out “How can they treat people like that?” I believe the questions asked on the Knowledge were easier in earlier times, but the way people were treated is a disgrace.

Knowledge examiners were all recruited from the Metropolitan Police. Maurice paints a dark picture of how things were in the past: before Levinson’s time, Knowledge Appearances were conducted by a man in full police inspector’s uniform. And yes, they were all men; employing female examiners is a surprisingly recent innovation. Before taxi licensing came under the umbrella of TfL, the examiners were a law unto themselves. You couldn’t question anything and there was zero transparency. Today’s Knowledge candidates are examined in a pleasant, respectful, environment. The person asking the questions is a (fairly) normal man or woman. They’ve been through the process themselves and they all hold a cab driving licence. They even write down your scores on a feedback sheet for you, perhaps even with a few words of encouragement.

Once in the job, many drivers drove a cab belonging to a garage (around 40% of drivers owned their own cabs in 1963). The cab was returned to the garage at the end of a shift, where another driver would be waiting to start his day, or night. The driver would be paid a commission based on the takings the meter had recorded for that shift.

To a cab owner, the annual inspection was a major trauma. The owner would drive his cab while the inspector sat in the back, pulling at all the switches and latches, and listening out for any untoward noises (I don’t think I’ve ever driven a cab that didn’t have strange noises!). Even the slightest of defects, or a pin-point of rust, would result in the cab being sent away to be put right.

Apparently, traffic congestion was a problem in the 1960s too. Maurice devotes a whole chapter to it, though he’d be spinning in the grave if could see the cycle superhighways and other traffic systems which have come in recently. I can’t comment of the traffic in 1963 as I was only one.

In my own book I suggested that drivers of the 60s enjoyed a good standard of income, but I’m less sure now. Levinson says he was reliant on the goodwill of his customers, and expected 25% of his income to come from tips!

Levinson asks a question that I still ask fifty-six years on: why do we rent the meter and not buy one and have it installed ourselves? I have no answer, I’m just saying.

The subject of de-licensing remains a hot potato to this day.  A taxi would only be licensed for ten years in the 1960s, “even if its owner has looked after it as he would a Rolls Royce.” Levinson goes on to say that “Owning a taxi is the only kind of business that starts off at its best and finishes up a dead loss.”

Naturally, the author has a lot to say about minicabs. They weren’t officially licensed back then, but they were becoming a menace. Maurice mentions a cab trade protest against private hire and how it demanded from the police a definition of “plying for hire”. This neatly brings us up to the present day if nothing else does! The more things change, the more they stay the same?

Maurice Levinson books are long out of print, but they can be found for a few quid on Amazon or eBay.

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No Country for Old Men

(Original edit of latest article for Taxi magazine)

 

The Mayor of London wants to restrict the age of taxis to twelve years or fewer, and a new delicensing scheme has been brought in. Drivers can benefit from a modest windfall if they act quickly to scrap their cabs and go electric. In January, the car accident involving the Duke of Edinburgh started a conversation on ageing drivers. Does age matter, or is it time to bring in a scrappage scheme for drivers too?

Also in January there was the story of the taxi mechanic who was tragically killed when the cab he was driving collided head-on with a car driven by a seventy year-old woman coming down the A13 on the wrong side of the road. She also sadly died in the crash. Plenty of young people kill themselves on the road too though. The fact is that older drivers are safer than younger ones. Personally, I’d rather drive alongside the Duke’s Range Rover than a car driven by a millennial full of testosterone and a hat on back to front. I think most of us would. The thing is, there’s always the possibility that the boy racer might improve his driving, while the older driver’s skills are likely to deteriorate.

I’m in no position to comment upon ninety-seven year old Prince Phillip’s accident. He might well be referred to as the Duke of Hazard, and he might be known to be something of a speed demon, but this court will strike that from the record. He used to be known to drive inconspicuously around London in a Metrocab, but maybe he joined the opposition? I bet he’s slipped down the driver rankings at Uber now, mind.

Older drivers in the cab game know that we’re regularly tested by a doctor for licensing purposes. Although our eyes are tested we’re not assessed on our spacial awareness or reaction speed. Apparently, it’s easy to confuse the brake and accelerator in an automatic. Still, a person’s age is no more an indicator of competence any more than a vehicle’s age. Both can be looked after to run well into old age. Even a TX2.

Every man thinks he’s the best driver in the world (and it is always men who think like this. A driving instructor friend assures me that women are better drivers). My wife still reminds me of the shame she felt when I reversed off our driveway and demolished a Northampton Borough recycling crate. I don’t think I’ve ever remember confusing the brake and accelerator pedals, but I regularly confuse the heating switches. More than once I’ve thought I’ve switched the air-con on only to realise I’d heated the rear window instead. I suppose that’s where it starts? Forgetting hotels and street names too, come to think of it.

Should the government or TfL scrap drivers, this will cut new blood coming into the trade to a trickle. The taxi trade would literally die of old age. No, I’d start with more privileged groups first. As the debate has already been opened concerning the Duke, how about a scrappage scheme for the royal family? There’s plenty of new blood, so we can afford to put some of the older ones out to pasture. Once Brexit is out of the way, we could start a debate on scrapping the House of Lords. It’s little more than a museum for living dinosaurs, and some of them have undoubtedly had it too good for too long.

Looking around, you see few young people in driving jobs. They’re sensibly doing other things, usually sat in the warm. Driving in our cities has become more challenging and frustrating over the years; most notably in London, and particularly in the last few years thanks to crazy road re-modelling schemes. People see the traffic in London and it puts them off considering driving there professionally. It’s very expensive in fuel and parking; and even if you keep moving, most motorists are subject to ever-changing congestion and emission charges. Then again, for us; if driving in London was easy, and everyone could park where they liked at a fair price, our job would barely exist. I could have a quieter life applying for the Knowledge of Leighton Buzzard – assuming there is such a test in my own town – but I wouldn’t fancy sitting on the same rank for an hour or so between jobs, and I’d miss out on the sightseeing opportunities too. No, I’d rather take my chances on the roads of London.

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Advertising Feature: Brexit Ferry

So, Chris “Failing” Grayling pulled out of a deal for the supply of ferries by a company that owned no ships. Never mind, I am happy to offer to supply an emergency cross-channel ferry service in the event of a hard Brexit. I can offer the use of a newly-refurbished fleet of boats, with myself as captain. True, I’m duplicitous, unreliable, and with an eye for the ladies – but I’ve given up the sauce and I want to be good. Give me a call!

Ps. Female 2nd mate required. Oilskins provided. Send photo with CV.

Peter, Coronation Street.

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