Category Archives: Published Articles

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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The Book They Tried to Ban!

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 York Publishing Services (on-line, post, or regular telephone receiver).

Please don’t buy on Amazon, as I have to pay commission to The Man.

Let me know if you want any more details.

 

http://www.ypdbooks.com/biography/1895-from-manor-house-station-to-gibson-square-and-back-again-secrets-from-the-london-taxi-trade-YPD02074.html

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A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way

(Original edit – and title – of article written for Taxi magazine.

 

It’s understood that through our training, London taxi drivers have an impressive grasp of the city in which we ply our trade. While our knowledge of the geography of London is sound, we are sometimes deficient in other forms of knowledge: namely car mechanics. In my experience I’ve found that cab drivers have little more mechanical knowledge than the civilian car driver. We concentrated all our energies on passing the Knowledge of London and had little contact with the vehicle we would eventually need to rely on for our living. I’ve been caught out many times when the cab has played up: sometimes things have happened beyond my control, while on other occasions having a better knowledge of mechanics would have made my life easier. My most recent breakdown resulted in a very expensive repair and an enforced holiday, just over a week after my real holiday.

I was driving into London on only my sixth work day following a relaxing week in the sun. I was about a mile from my home in Leighton Buzzard when the cab lost power. I crawled into a layby with smoke billowing out the back. I called the cavalry.

The RAC man spent a fair bit of time poking and prodding under the bonnet and consulting his laptop. After much deliberation, he said he thought I had at least one injector out. Rather than spend a depressing day at the garage, I let him tow the cab to Luton Cabs, while I walked back along the verge of the busy A505 into town. I caught a bus to the pub, which is my default action following such trauma.

I feel inadequate being at the mercy of others. Over the years I’ve paid a lot of money for parts that I don’t fully understand: wishbones, bushes, anti-roll bars. I tell myself that expense is inevitable because these parts wear out quickly due to the rigours of London’s roads; particularly all those speed bumps. I don’t really know what an injector is: I can guess what it does, but I don’t know what it looks like – or what it costs to replace. Then there are those mysterious radiators and water pumps. And the various sections of radiator hose that all too frequently need changing: hoses that seem surprised at being asked to handle hot water every now and again. Radiators have given me a lot of grief. The fluid in the expansion tank stays at the same level for months, then it suddenly plummets and there’s steam and hot fluid everywhere. Last but not least are the batteries and alternators that serve you well for a couple of years, then suddenly let you down and leave you stationary in the middle of London.

On this occasion it appeared to be an injector problem. But it wasn’t. It was far worse than that. My worst fears were realised: I needed a new engine. My 2011 TX4 has done over 290,000 miles; mostly motorway miles due to my living in Northampton, then Bedfordshire. It’s a lot of miles, and I knew that the engine could go at any time. I was thinking about selling the cab before its inspection in March and buying a new one. That plan’s gone to the wall, as have my emergency savings.

It’s not just the cost of the new engine, it’s the time off. I can get on with my writing, but it was costing me money going into town every two days to go food shopping. I can’t go into town without having a pint or two to make the trip worthwhile. Just as diesel fuels our cabs, beer fuels the writer. Reviewing my work in the pub provides satisfaction, but the costs add up when you’re doing it so often.

Even though I’m back working I’ll eventually need to change some of the parts mentioned above before I can change the cab. Now the engine’s gone, the next fear is that my ageing cab might need a new gearbox in the near future. I’ve been driving really carefully since I got the cab back. I had lots of work done while the cab was in the garage, including an MOT. I’ve been told I’ll need a new trailing arm next service. Trailing arm? I’m sure they make these names up.

Anyway, I’ll review the issue next year. I’m nervous about buying a new cab though. There are still no affordable e-cabs on offer and the charging infrastructure still needs building up. Someone told me there are two new charging points in the town centre, but it’s still not enough. Maybe things will have improved in eighteen months’ time when I’ll think again about trading up.

 

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Today Luton, Tomorrow the World

(Original edit – and title – of article written for Taxi magazine).

However much we London cab drivers complain about those in power making our job more difficult, things in the provinces things are even tougher. For instance, cab drivers outside London have to pay thousands of pounds each year for permission to rank at train stations. London drivers don’t pay to rank at stations, but it’s useful to keep an eye on what’s happening outside the M25 as who knows what might happen in the future.

I take particular interest in the goings on at Luton Airport because it’s only up the road from my home in Leighton Buzzard, and it’s an airport I use every now and again for my holidays. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to take customers to Luton Airport you’ll also know that you have to pay £3 for the privilege of dropping off. You may have also heard that the airport authorities sold off taxi provision to private hire a couple of years ago.

In September we were flying out to Kefalonia from Luton, so we had the chance to see how things were working. For the outward journey, my wife arranged a fixed price fare in a Central Bedfordshire taxi. No problems there. Mo often takes a taxi to work, and her usual driver gave her a good price. He offered to pick us up when we return, but we declined. You can’t trust flights arriving on time and we didn’t want anyone waiting around for hours. There was no reason not to expect things to run just as smoothly for the return journey. I knew Luton taxis were a bit more expensive, and I knew things had changed at Luton Airport; but I still assumed it would be a simple matter of getting a cab off the rank.

I found what was happening at our local airport both depressing and confusing. The night we arrived back we followed the “Taxi” signs. We couldn’t walk straight on to the rank as there’s an Addison Lee booking office in the way. We tried to walk around it to find another way to the rank when a bloke stepped out of the shadows offering his services. He took an ID out of his pocket. It was a TfL private hire driver’s licence. I explained we were looking for a proper taxi, not private hire. He said there are no taxis at Luton Airport any more (only later did I wonder what a TfL-licenced minicab driver was doing in Bedfordshire. I neglected to inspect the licence plates, but I assume all the licenced cars at the airport would be licenced by Luton. I expect his minicab was in the car park while he touted in the darkness next to the official booking office).

What he told me was almost true though. When I spotted a solitary TX4 mixed in with the Addison Lee minicabs I found a way on to the rank and spoke to the driver. He told me that everyone working the airport is signed up with Addison Lee and we had to go through the booking system.

Knowing there was at least one taxi working the airport I approached staff in the booking hut. I requested a taxi. They said all their vehicles were taxis. I held my lip. After much deliberation between my wife and I, we decided to go with Addison Lee and see what happened. We gave our address to the woman and within seconds we had a slip of paper from a machine. The fare would be £45.25 and we’d pay cash on arrival. It was considerably more than we paid to get to Luton. Fair enough, it was nearly 10pm, but this is the price for a minicab!

On the rank, the solitary TX4 taxi was now number two. I asked the marshal if we could take this vehicle. He was reasonable enough to allow this.

I exchanged a few words with the driver on arrival. My driver was driving back to the airport. He confirmed that Luton Airport have sold off taxi provision to Addison Lee and that the only way taxis can access the airport is signing up with Addison Lee. I’m not sure if drivers have to pay AL a cut, or just subscribe to their circuit. He told me that times are hard for the local taxi drivers (I didn’t want to depress him further by asking if Uber operate in Luton). I guess the only other option is to work Luton town centre and risk the drunks and weirdos.

It’s scandalous that any taxi or private hire driver should be charged for ranking up to serve airport or station customers. As for arriving customers: they follow the Taxi sign, but it’s darn near impossible to actually find a taxi. I only managed it by having some idea of how things work. Too many people use the “Taxi” name in vain. If a “Taxi” is indicated, customers should at least be able to request one. Customers are being directed to a private hire booking hut by misleading signage. People aren’t getting what they think they are getting.

With all the talk about Uber maybe we’ve neglected the threat of our old foe Addison Lee now that the battle has moved thirty miles up the M1? We need to keep our eyes on other transport hubs as I feel this could be the thin end of the wedge.

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Toilets & Cycles

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

 

I always read Transport for London’s OnRoute magazine. It might be a bit dry and self-congratulatory at times, but there are always some interesting articles relevant to our work. A couple of pieces particularly interested me in the last edition.

There was a useful piece entitled At your Convenience. This tackled the thorny subject of where those of us who drive around London all day can find toilets. Unsurprisingly there are apps available to help; such as Toilet Finder, Flush Toilet Finder and City Toilet Finder. There’s also a Great British Toilet Map available to toilet aficionados nationwide. Accompanying the listings, the apps no doubt list consumer reviews and star ratings too. None of this sounds as exciting as Trip Advisor, but probably useful to those about to be caught short while driving, but with just enough time to spend on the internet in an endeavour to locate facilities.

London train and tube stations are listed in the TfL magazine. A surprising number of stations have toilet facilities. While this is good to know, the most useful thing missing from the article is information on parking. It’s nice to know there are loos at Old Street, Piccadilly Circus, and – Lord help us – Bank; but where are the parking facilities? There’s also a toilet at Regency Place, of course, but many drivers have found out that they also train parking cameras in the immediate vicinity. Has anyone ever nipped into the terminals at Heathrow or City Airports? I often consider it when I’ve dropped off at Heathrow, but I’ve never chanced it. I can just imagine the authorities itching to destroy an unattended taxi in a controlled explosion for the fun of it.

Another useful OnRoute article gives advice to motorists on keeping cyclists safe. There’s nothing wrong with the advice given: giving room, and checking for “cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists who may weave through stationary traffic.” It’s one-sided though, as it gives no advice to cyclists: ie. To obey traffic systems and one-way workings; to use lights at night; not to ride on pavements; not to undertake; and no using the cobbled central strip on The Strand as a cycle superhighway. It would be useful to advise caution to cyclists – and pedestrians – when weaving through stationary traffic, rather than put the onus on the motorist to avoid them. How much space are cyclists advised to leave for us when they’re sprinting through roadworks?

I didn’t know there’s a £100 fine, and three points on a licence, for motorists who enter the advanced stop line box at a red light. Sometimes you accidently get caught in the box when the lights change and you don’t want to risk a collision by braking sharply with that over-laden Spanish artic behind you. Enforcement seems to be zero. I’ve never seen anyone been pulled up for sitting in this box. Cars, vans – and yes, even cabs do it; but the box is usually full of motorbikes. It intimidates and endangers cyclists, so maybe they should train traffic enforcement cameras on these boxes as well as – or instead of – box junctions? Some box junctions have their uses – the Euston Road/Upper Woburn Place one for example; but many others are used to generate money.

Too many vehicles sit in cycle lanes too. There are usually about twenty vans in the contra flow cycle lane in Chancery Lane. I know maintaining cameras costs money, but they’d pay for themselves. We generally don’t like cameras, but I’d rather they catch people here than people who’ve accidently been caught on the yellow grid of a box junction.

While on the subject of box junctions, here’s a postscript to an article I wrote about PCNs a couple of months ago. You might remember how I trumpeted the announcement that I was aiming to get my PCN average down to zero this year? Well, two days after emailing the piece off I received a PCN for being in a box junction on Westminster Bridge Road. I fear this subject might run and run…

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