You can no longer pay by cash on a London bus. You can only pay by cash in most London taxis. As a London cab driver I’m asking myself if it’s time to embrace the cashless society, or is it everyone’s right to insist on payment in cash?
Those of us who rarely use buses would like to think that if we unexpectedly needed to make a bus journey, cash would be accepted. I occasionally use buses where I live in Northampton, and I’m a few years away from a free bus pass. I pay cash, and even get change if necessary. My dusty, rarely-used, Oyster Card is no use outside London, and I wouldn’t know what to do if all areas went cashless and I found myself in unfamiliar territory looking for a bus.
What’s the thinking behind the decision to go cashless? Are Transport for London (TfL) just trying to be young and trendy? It could be about saving time, but paying a bus driver cash needn’t take any more time than swiping an Oyster Card. In Birmingham, you put your cash into a machine and are instantly issued with a ticket. It’s very quick (though you have to make sure you have the right money as they don’t give change). It’s a radical idea, but if they really wanted to save time why not have someone walking through the bus with a mobile ticket machine? To combat technical malfunction the machine could be manually-operated by turning a handle. Perhaps they could give the ticket seller role a fancy name: “Bus Conductor” or “Clippie”, something like that.
I’d feel a bit aggrieved if I couldn’t pay cash for something if I chose to. Businesses can refuse to accept cheques and credit cards, but coins of the realm should be sacrosanct. Cash provides something tangible, a physical certainty. You know for sure you’ve paid, and you know someone has paid you. Notes and coins carry the Queen’s head: surely she’s good for the money?
On the day that buses stopped accepting cash I was hailed by the doorman at a West End hotel. He’d been reduced to stopping cabs several hundred yards away in a busier part of the street, asking drivers if they took credit cards. He’d unsuccessfully stopped six cabs before I came by with my card machine. Although please to see me, I was rather forced on the defensive when he told me my trade was full of dinosaurs and would die at the hands of Uber, and other virtual private hire companies who welcome credit cards. In a futile endeavour to defend my less progressive colleagues I muttered something about things happening slowly in the cab trade. Not that I’m particularly progressive; my main phone is plugged into the wall at home, and my “App” is the Yellow Pages.
Until recently, nothing much had happened in the cab trade for around three hundred years. We switched from horse-drawn to motorised vehicles a hundred years’ ago, and apart from competition from private hire from the 1960s onwards, little else has changed. Suddenly, technology is making us ask questions of how we go about our business. The hotel linkman was right: short-sightedness will get us nowhere. Customers can now order a taxi or private hire vehicle from any number of mobile phone Apps at the press of a button. It’s true that only a minority of customers ask to pay by credit card. Some foreign customers expect to be able to pay by card, but most British customers assume they can’t, so don’t bother asking. Since having my card reader installed three years ago I’d been averaging one a day. Recently, I’ve seen an increase. I would definitely lose out if I refused to take credit cards. A few Sundays ago I was crawling past the cab rank at Camden Town Station. I’d expect a nice little run to the West End from there. I saw a young female tourist ask the two cabs waiting if they took credit cards. Neither did, so they both lost a job. Had the second driver been able to accept cards he could have legitimately jumped the queue for an unexpected result. This isn’t an uncommon event. I’ve had hotel doormen load me up for Heathrow while cabs sat stewing on the rank. Most drivers like a “Flyer” because the job pays well in relation to the time it takes to complete. I’ve also been to Reading and Oxford on credit cards from station ranks (a distance job is known as a “Roader”. If the meter’s on £100 as you turn off the M4, you’re on a Roader).
I have some sympathy for the “Cash Only” wallahs though. Taking cards is a bit of a pain. It’s not nice fiddling with a swipe machine on Shaftesbury Avenue with buses swerving around you, and worrying about someone at TfL with an itchy camera-hand, waiting for you to exceed the two minutes allowed for loading. You need a working printer too, which isn’t compulsory. Then there’s the moral dilemma of having to charge someone an extra 10% for the privilege. That 10% doesn’t go to the driver, it goes to supplier of the card reader. With my system, I’m also debited £1 for every transaction. I don’t encourage paying by card, but I view it as a necessity.
Cashless payment is also socially contactless, particularly on the buses. No pleasantries are exchanged as you swipe your card on boarding. Driver and passenger barely acknowledge each other. As for taxis, I am on a computerised radio circuit and carry passengers on account. On account jobs the whole transition is completed by me pressing a button at the end of the journey. The passenger then walks off, often in silence, as on the buses. In the cashless society, human interaction is discouraged more and more. Even when tube station ticket offices are open, staffing levels can leave the message that walk-up customers with cash aren’t especially welcome. Banks virtually dare us to speak to their staff in person, as they steer us towards the cash machine. Cab drivers renew their licences remotely as we are not welcome at TfL’s offices. We queue at the Post Office instead. We used to queue at the Post Office to renew our tax disc, but most of us do that online now. We might gain a little convenience, but as a society we also lose something.
There can’t be many businesses left where cash is still king. Not everyone likes us being paid cash, particularly those who don’t make any money from us. I’m suspicious that the calls to make card acceptance mandatory in London cabs are prompted by The Man who wants to cream 10% from our earnings. I wouldn’t like to see card acceptance made mandatory, as I believe people have every right to insist on paying cash, or being paid in cash, if they feel strongly about it. The fact is, it’s becoming essential if you’re a full time cab driver. It’s a shame about the buses, but until the cab trade catches up I’m happy to jump the queue for Roaders.