Tag Archives: London cab

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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Taking Stock

(My edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

Taking Stock

Late last year the subject of cryonics came up.  This is where you have your body frozen in the hope that you can be brought back to life at a later date.  With the Kipper Season biting, now might be a good time to be cryogenically frozen.  When might I like to be thawed out?  Should I hang around until I can see West Ham win the Champions League?  When Uber are run out of town?  Or for just long enough to see trade improve?

I expect the process is more involved than freezing a pack of chicken legs though.  Freezing humans sounds weird and scary; something from science fiction – maybe as fictional as West Ham winning the Champions League – yet, a few years’ ago the idea that all London taxis would accept credit cards sounded like science fiction.  A year ago I believe only about 40% of us took cards, so it was a rapid turnaround, and a rapid change in cab culture.  Many things happened in the trade last year, and towards the end of the year we had several reasons to be cheerful going into 2017.

The word is getting round that we all take credit cards, and I’m sure this will result in more business.  We are also being granted more rank space.  I didn’t use ranks much in the past, but I’ve found them useful over the last couple of years when I’ve bored of driving around burning diesel.  I’m excited about the prospect of greater access to bus lanes.  I hear we’ll be able to follow the buses across the westbound slip to the left of Euston Underpass.  This will prove invaluable when the underpass is jammed; as it is most of the day since Tavistock Place westbound was closed to us.  I’m not sure whether it might happen, but wouldn’t it be great if we could turn right from the Strand directly on to Waterloo Bridge like the buses?  Or make the right from Bloomsbury Street into New Oxford Street.  I believe worsening traffic poses more of a threat than an increase in PH licences, as it puts potential customers off.  Just getting access to short stretches of extra bus lanes is a step in the right direction.

I think we generally have the support of the new Mayor.  He’s not going to give us everything we want, but I think he’ll treat us with fairness.

New Private Hire rules are being brought in that will protect the public and make things fairer for us.  Some elements within Private Hire are up in arms, but the new regulations are only what the public could reasonably expect as a matter of course.  Every PH customer should expect their driver to be able to understand English and have proper insurance on display.  Customers should expect operators to have a base in London and be easily contactable should they have queries or any complaints.  Many of the reforms are supported by the traditional PH companies, and many PH drivers also support a cap on PH licence numbers.  TfL need to get their finger out on this one.  They complain that they need parliamentary approval, yet they capped Suburban taxi licences easily enough.

It’s interesting to see that the taxi and PH groups find themselves in agreement on many issues:  it’s mostly Uber who are complaining.  The Mayor is “disappointed” that Uber are fighting reforms.  I expect TfL are disappointed too.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds!   TfL licensed a tech company as a mini-cab operator, knowing that it had no contact phone number, was going to use a mobile phone as a meter, ply for immediate hire, and would pay tax abroad.  If Uber are only supplying the App, as they claim, how could they ever be licensed as a London Private Hire operator?  I bet TfL regret rolling over so easily now Uber are taking them to court over the new regulations.

There was more bad news for Uber when their drivers were ruled to be employees rather than self-employed.  This could be catastrophic for Uber, as will have to treat their drivers to holiday and sick pay, maternity & paternity leave, and pensions.  Maybe they will also have to collect tax and National Insurance from them too.  Uber are appealing this one too.  They’re certainly spending a lot of time, money and effort on legal disputes.  They obviously think control of London is worth fighting for, but if the employment status ruling holds they’ll be well on the back foot this year.  Imagine every Uber driver demanding backdated holiday pay!  Their fares are sure to rise making them less attractive, and many of their drivers will struggle to pay huge increases in income tax and national insurance.

Cab drivers have become more commercially astute over the last few years of famine, uncertainty, and rapid technological changes.  We’ve been forced to think more about ways to get business, and to research new opportunities.  There are various Apps available, to compliment the more traditional radio circuits.  We have all, or at least, most bases covered.  This wasn’t the case in the past.  We’ve upped our game in the face of new, rapacious and unfair, competition.  We need to stay organised and united as we take the fight into the New Year.

So, I think I’ll arrange to be de-frosted in the Spring of 2018 and see how things are.  If I can still smell the kippers would someone just pour some more ice cubes over me?

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Fare’s Fair

(original draft of article written for Taxi magazine).

January’s average 2.2% rise in train fares was trumpeted as the lowest price hike in five years. Wow. It looks London cab fares are going up by 0.3 % in the spring. Combined with last year’s 0.7% rise, this gives us 1% over two years. There’s been no fanfare from us though, and surprisingly few drivers have asked for more. Most of us accept that things are difficult for many people and we can’t afford to lose customers through pricing ourselves out of the market.
Many people rely on the train companies to get them to work. Customers can shout as much as they like about fare increases, but it makes no difference in Rip Off Britain. They’re a captive market. The stark choice is, pay up or give up your job. The utility companies are the same; it takes the government to keep them in check when price hikes get outrageous. Everyone needs gas and electricity, and we’re all held to ransom. They all say they need to raise prices so they can invest in modernisation. It’s a shame we can’t charge more when we want to invest in new rolling stock.
Some people rely on us to get them to where they want to go too – I’m particularly thinking of Taxicard users; but a cab ride is more often a luxury than a necessity. It’s a nuisance if you are hauling freight around on public transport, have kids in tow, or if you’re unfamiliar with the geography of London; but it’s still a luxury. It’s discretionary spending. As an interesting thought, if we provide a luxury service, you could argue that we could justify a bigger rise than the train companies- though as I said, I don’t think the support is there for anything but a nominal rise in cab fares.
Super Commuter
Commuting is a nasty business. I had a taste of it when I was a Knowledge Examiner a few years’ ago. I could see why people were tempted into a taxi ride. It can be thoroughly unpleasant on the trains and tubes, and walking can be more difficult than driving. Pedestrians are harder to negotiate around than other cars. Personally I think there should be local and express pavements, and some one-way workings like the pedestrian walkway at Birmingham New Street Station.
I had to get myself from the northern suburbs of Northampton to Palestra for 8am. I’d park near the train station for the 5.46 train to Euston. The journey out was bearable as I’d easily secure a seat. The remaining tube journey was fine as London hadn’t fully woken up yet. The return journey was more fraught. There I’d be, waiting on the concourse at Euston until my train’s platform was announced. The second it flashed up on the boards there would be a rush from all directions and I’d feel like part of a football crowd surging down the ramp towards the platform. As the train pulled in, there would be a mad, stressful, crush as we all fought our way to secure a prized seat (only the big cats survive in the commuter jungle: pussies have to stand all the way to Milton Keynes). Sometimes you’d only get a four-carriage train. Sometimes they’d open up First Class to everyone as things were so overcrowded (not very nice for folk who’d paid extra money for First Class just so they could avoid all this madness). So, my most recent experience of commuting was a too-short train, and if I was lucky, a seat barely large enough to accommodate an arse larger than that of a supermodel. All this, and inflation-busting fare rises every year.
When I first started work at sixteen I took the Upminster to Marble Arch commute in my stride. Knocking fifty, the delights of travelling into London on overcrowded public transport soon wore thin. Initially, you think you’re hard: a warrior going into battle every morning, scornfully imagining those public sector drones in Northampton who wouldn’t even be out of bed yet. I wouldn’t even be home when they’re having their tea! Getting up at 4.30 every morning I was permanently tired. It’s amazing the way you can convince yourself that this way of life is normal. Inevitably, I couldn’t go on like that, and it was the main reason why I reluctantly left the job I loved.
Back on the cab full time and I was driving in at a civilised hour (9am). Many people express surprise when I tell them I drive seventy miles into London five days a week. I reply that you get used to it. I don’t think I would have got used to doing the journey on public transport. Home to Brent Cross takes me seventy-five minutes. Some people spend an hour of more just getting across London. Leaving London at night I usually join the M1 at Brent Cross. People wouldn’t think it odd living in Watford or Luton and commuting to London, but once on the motorway what’s an extra forty minutes? Of course it costs me considerably more than the price of my £4,400 annual season ticket, but it’s swings and roundabouts. What I lose in time and money I gain on house prices. When the cab fare rise is officially announced I shall take some time on the M1 to think what I’m going to spend my 0.3% on. It should only take a minute out of my busy day.

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