Tag Archives: London Taxis

Is it time for an anti-demo march?

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

So, another summer spent planning our work days around special events. In July we had the Gay Pride event, Donald Trump’s visit, and the ever-growing programme of running and cycling events that make life difficult for those of us forced to use London’s streets.

I find the Gay Pride event difficult to work around, so that was out. This year it coincided with an unlikely World Cup quarter final for England, so I was happy to have this day off (I got a normal day in on July 11th and caught the second half of the semi-final. I wish I hadn’t).

Next it was time for the visit of Team Trump. I’m not a supporter of Mr Trump, but I find him interesting and amusing, rather like Boris (What’s Donald Trump’s views on Uber, I wonder?). Initially, I was dismayed at Mayor Khan’s decision to allow the flying of a balloon depicting Donald as a baby. Trump had previously taken unfair digs at the Mayor over London’s record of terrorism and violent crime, but I felt it was Mr Khan’s duty to stay neutral. Was he showing his political colours by sanctioning the anti-Trump balloon? Would it make us look stupid? However, when I saw as picture of the balloon my standpoint shifted a bit and I could just about view the stunt as traditional British satire (should readers of my articles ever crowd-fund a satirical balloon of myself, I like to think I’d see the funny side).

I knew something was planned for Friday 13th, but there were no signs up warning of disruption. I therefore tried to work, bearing in mind that should there be problems on Saturday it would mean three expensive days off – Sunday 15th was already written off because of a running race. I just managed to avoid an evening of cycle misery in the City on Tuesday 17th by taking a Going Home job north from Goldman Sachs. Before the month was out there would be another two days of cycling to look forward to on the 28th & 29th

Anyway, on Friday 13th I managed to avoid the West End and complete two account jobs. I knew crucial roads in the West End were closed off, but I thought they’d hold their demos, and then everything would get back to normal. At lunchtime I heard that one of the two marches wasn’t even due to start until 2pm and would go on until 5pm. I drove home. The disruption went on well beyond 5pm anyway, so my decision to get out of town was vindicated.

The real disgrace here is allowing demonstrations to close a working city, particularly on a weekday. I often get caught in demos at the weekend, but the traffic is generally lighter and you have a fighting chance of navigating around closed off streets. On a weekday, gridlock brings large areas to a halt. It just shouldn’t be allowed. Don’t give me that “it’s everyone’s right to protest” nonsense. What about the rights of those who live and work in the affected areas? We all have rights.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Mayor will allow similar stunts when even more contentious world leaders make visits to London – real dictators and despots. There are far worse people than Donald Trump, yet the real tyrants only attract a fraction of outrage when they visit our shores.

Who are these people who can spare a day to protest against a president of a friendly country? Who are they trying to impress? Mr Trump wasn’t even in London at the time of the protests. I think many of these people have nothing better to do with their time than hang around in a pack with other like-minded people waving silly placards. Maybe they’re fed up with complaining to each other on social media about how terrible everything is? Maybe they self-diagnose the need to get out more? They’re preaching to the converted. They’re not teaching anybody anything, or changing people’s minds. Their messages are meaningless and confused. “Peace”, “Love”, “No to Racism”, &c., &c… OK, fine. We can all agree on that, now tell me something new? I don’t remember such Peace & Love messages when Chinese and Saudi leaders visited. At least Mr Trump’s own people can vote him out; his presidency is a matter for the American people.

Cycling and running racing events have reached saturation point. These events are run for commercial gain. The organisers get advertising and the participants enjoy themselves, but the majority are put out. The authorities seriously need to re-think demos and marches. London’s clearly not open for business on these days of action. The city can’t be closed off whenever someone doesn’t like something someone says and goes on Twitter to arrange a day of disruption – or however these events are arranged (I don’t know, I’ve never been invited to one).

Anyway, here’s my message: we’ve had enough of people blocking up our work space, so bagger orf.

If nothing is done to stop the marches, maybe it’s time for an anti-demo demo?

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Strength through Knowledge

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

With fewer people starting the Knowledge, our reaction could be “good, more work for us.” It’s a short-sighted view though, as fewer drivers means less collective power. And collective power is something we are currently in need of right now. We need strength in numbers to fight the long-running licensing of Uber, and to curtail TfL’s damaging road “re-modelling” projects and road closures.

The private hire contingent outnumbers us considerably – around 113,000 mini-cab drivers against fewer than 24,000 taxi drivers. Of course, there are nowhere near 113,000 drivers on active service. Not many PH drivers stay around for long, but they keep their licences as they double as a Congestion Charge season ticket. Private hire drivers are less of a coherent group. We have the advantage as if we put our different political viewpoints aside and pull together, we can effect some change.  It’s more than ever important to attach ourselves to trade organisations.

It might be a good time to start the Knowledge as you’re likely to get through the system quicker. When I became a Knowledge examiner in 2011 I was part of a cohort of six who were recruited to replace others who had recently left. Waiting times between Knowledge Appearances were running at double what they should have been: ie. A 56-day appointment could run to 112 days. This would have been incredibly frustrating for those affected.

I completed the Knowledge 30 years’ ago this coming December. It was tough in the eighties, but not as tough as some people make out. Sure, some people had bad experiences with examiners who made life difficult for them or acted inappropriately. Comparatively recently I’ve heard anecdotes from former Knowledge Boys who had things thrown at them – or had their appointment card damaged by the examiner scraping it against a wall during the last days of the Raj at Penton Street. No examiners were ever rude or unreasonable with me, though, and the Knowledge was easier to learn. No examiners asked me for silly Points of Interest. I just plodded along, safe in the knowledge that as long as I didn’t give up, I’d get there in the end.

The Knowledge is harder now. For a start, some districts of London barely existed in the 80s. There were a few pubs in Wapping, but past News International on Pennington Street, Points of Interest were thin on the ground. There wasn’t much in Rotherhithe, and Canary Wharf didn’t exist. There wasn’t even a lot going on in the square mile of the City, where livery Halls were the bread and butter Points. Knowledge Boys neglect livery halls at their peril to this day, but they also need to keep up with the hotels and bars. The City pretty much closed at 5pm. Restaurants and bars barely existed. The City is now chock full of lovely Points that need to be learnt.

It’s hard work remembering Points, and they change so frequently it’s hard to keep up with them. My Knowledge is nothing special. I have the memory span of a guppy. As an examiner, I only used to ask all those Premier Inns, Travelodges, Double Trees, &c. in the vain hope that I’d remember them myself. I remember few livery halls.

Compared with the old PCO at Penton Street, things aren’t quite so austere up The Towers; but the marking system puts undue stress on the candidate. Unless you’ve experienced the Knowledge in the last 17 years you won’t be aware of the Red-Lining system. You were rarely told how well you were doing, and you didn’t know how you were scored (many years later I learned the examiners used a marking system consisting of smiley faces). You understood that once the examiners felt you knew enough, they’d put you up a stage. These days you can go down. You can be relegated.

In the spirit of customer-focussed transparency, everyone leaves with a feedback sheet containing their scores – and possibly a few scribbled comments on their performance.  If you don’t gain enough marks in order to gain a C pass in four Appearances you are Red-Lined and sent back to start that stage from the beginning. It could result in months of hard work down the drain. I think once you’ve amassed a certain amount of points you should be put up to the next stage. I don’t think anyone should be put back. The Knowledge shouldn’t be made easier, nor should it become medieval torture.

At least today’s Knowledge candidates are clear on what questions they can be asked. During my tenure, TfL finally worked out how to put a circle on a map.  One amusing event was when we tried to manually draw the six-mile exclusion zone on the wall maps with marker pen. I was the one with the degree so they thought I should draw the first one. I made a right mess of it.

Anyway, for those starting the Knowledge now, they have more realistic expectations of the job. It’s been a tough few years, but I believe we’ve hit the bottom and we’re bouncing up again. I believe their investment in the trade can only go up.

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Lost Property & Missing Policemen

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

I hadn’t found any lost property in the cab for a long time. I was keen to get home to start a three-day weekend when my vigilance deserted me and I let a man leave his phone in my cab.

These things always seem to happen at the end of the day before a day off.  I have an excellent record for re-uniting folk with their mobile phones though. What usually happens is they call the lost phone, I answer it; then arrange to deliver it make to the owner. No call came this time, so I took the official lost property route. It was frustrating though because I remember where I picked my man up and where I dropped him; I just didn’t know the door number.

It was 6.30pm, so the TfL Lost Property Office at Baker Street was closed. Not to worry, I knew West End Central Police Station would be open so I headed to Mayfair. The problem with police stations is that there’s no parking. They hardly encourage you to report a crime, do they?  I parked on the rank in New Burlington Street and made the sixty second walk to Savile Row. I wasn’t there long. Just long enough to read the notice saying they were closed.

It was Thursday and I was in Going Home mode on ComCab. I wouldn’t be back in London until Monday. Bearing in mind the twenty-four hour rule I thought where else could I hand in the phone? I then remembered a bilking incident from 2016. A PC at West Hampstead helped me recover some money after a penniless student fled from his own house leaving an unpaid £41 taxi fare. His parents weren’t in to lend him the cab fare from Shaftesbury Avenue to Hampstead and he panicked and fled the scene.  Anyway, I remember the police officer saying that he worked nights, so I was confident West Hampstead Police Station would be open, and it was on my route home.

The last time I handed something in at a police station was about twenty-five years’ ago. As a young butter boy I foolishly accepted a £50 note that two youths gave me as payment for a fare. When I went to pay for my meal at the Royal Oak caff we could all see the note was a fake.

Later that evening I heard a radio report about a gang of counterfeiters who had been apprehended. I figured my moody £50 note was probably one of their creations. When I handed it in at Tottenham Court Road, I half expected a reward;, but all they did was put my fifty into a plastic bag and send me on my way. Don’t forget I’d also given the two scroats about £40 change.

Tottenham Court Road Police Station is long gone, but I was pleased to find that West Hampstead was open. Great. I had my apology prepared as the male and female greeted me behind the glass: “It’s a boring one… Lost property.” The lady was even more apologetic than I was when she told me they no longer accept lost property. She also pointed out how lucky I was to find them open. She could clearly hardly believe it herself as she exclaimed that they only open three HOURS per week!

She had the air of a provincial librarian. In fact the whole place felt like a small town library. It wasn’t like the police stations I’d come to expect from watching TV. There was no harassed bloke in white shirtsleeves trying to tap stuff into a computer while folk drunkenly fell all over the counter mumbling nonsense. There were no streetwalkers sat sullenly on a bench awaiting processing, or hoping to be let off with a warning and a lecture on keeping yourself safe. It was just two middle aged people manning the station; and, I noted, a pet dog lying under a desk.

I know little about mobile phones, so I asked their help in trying to open the device to identify the owner. The man couldn’t open the phone either. They said I could go to Kentish Town Police Station as an alternative. I explained I was heading towards the M1 and home. He said I’d done my bit by trying two stations, so I agreed I’d have my three days’ off and take it to Baker Street on Monday.

We try our best to do the right thing and re-unite people with their lost property, but cuts to the Police Service have resulted in the situation where we’re put in a difficult position: TfL Lost Property Office works office hours; most police stations closed; and there’s nowhere to park if you are lucky to find one open.

They say the police are never around when you want them. Several days later I passed a rank of police vans parked up on Bridge Street prior to the anti-Brexit demo. There was a policeman in a yellow vest stopping people drive into Parliament Square. I wondered what station all these coppers came from, and whether if I tapped on the door of the van they’d take down some particulars and put any lost property into a plastic bag for me?

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The Book They Tried to Ban

I’m delighted to announce that last night I completed my book manuscript. I started it about five years’ ago. I wrote it part-time, and there was about a year when I didn’t touch it at all: I just never had the time when I was working as a Knowledge Examiner at TF Hell (and they wouldn’t have allowed me to publish anything mentioning them).

I’ve emailed the whole 93,200 words off for proof-reading and eventual book production. It’ll need formatting for book layout, cover design, &c. As I’m publishing it myself I have total control over all aspects of production.

I’ll post updates on the book’s production; and I’ll put up some outtakes (probably including my Brexit Rant chapter, which didn’t make the finished manuscript).

As an amuse bouche, here’s the contents list:

Contents

Introduction

 

1) The Knowledge

2) Butter Boy

3) My Personal Revolution

4) Back on the Cab

5) How it all Works

6) Passengers

7) Know Your Enemy

8) When Things go Wrong

9) Examiner

10) Back on the Cab (again)

11) Examiner 2

12) The Years of Change

13) Uber

14) The Future

 

Appendix A:  Q&A

Appendix B:  Knowledge Boy Tips

 

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Carrots & Communication

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

An amusing news story caught my attention recently. Apparently supermarket bosses had been scratching their heads wondering why they were selling more carrots than they held in stock. What was going on? It transpired that people were using the self-scanning facility to pass off expensive fruit & veg as cheap old carrots. The shops have now installed CCTV trained on the self-service tills.

To speak truth, I’m no fan of carrots. I buy them for the rabbit, but I wouldn’t eat one myself. I pick out anything green or orange from my food, and if the cat or the rabbit doesn’t eat it, it goes in the bin.

I’ve always been an opponent of self-service supermarket tills, and I said as much in a piece I wrote not too long ago on the subject of driverless cabs. On the subject of automated taxis I argued that it wasn’t just about safety; it was also about how we are losing the personal touch. Technology used sensibly can make life easier and more pleasurable, but it can also come as a detriment to social cohesion and well-being. However many of us get irritated, or feel uncomfortable, with other people, most of us have a basic need for some degree of human contact (and this is from someone who is off the scale on introversion and has spent most of his life avoiding other people). Sometimes a welcoming smile or a cheery greeting can be enough. Having 50% of a supermarket’s tills given over to self-scanning is reasonable, but it’s going to be a soulless experience if all the human checkouts are replaced by machines. The carrot issue also highlights how technology can be exploited by both suppliers and consumers. In this case the consumers are de-frauding the suppliers.

Uber halted its testing of driverless cars earlier this year, after someone was tragically killed by one of its driverless cars during testing. The car was manned at the time, which is worrying. I expect you’re expecting a rant about Uber now, but no. It just got me thinking about communication and the social experience.

The service that a taxi driver provides can be impersonal. Some people like that, some don’t. We’re behind a bullet-proof partition, and the intercom doesn’t do a lot. London is a very noisy place, with roads full of cars, cabs, vans, motorcycles and buses. There are roadworks and building sites on almost every road you could mention (this is one reason why I wouldn’t move back to London after eighteen years’ of relative peace and quiet).

Drivers of the new electric cabs have an advantage with their quieter vehicles. It would be nice for all of us to hear our passengers speak, and even hold a normal conversation – as far as you can when someone’s talking to the back of your head. I prefer the old sliding partition we had on the FX4. The rule was we could only have a 4 ½ inch gap, but by removing the wooden block the partition could be slid open fully so we could talk to our passengers. I remember how put out I’d be if the passengers slid the partition closed. That’s what I mean about losing social contact. It doesn’t feel nice.

Some drivers neither want to be seen or heard. In my town of Leighton Buzzard, taxi drivers often obliterate the view by posting large notices on the partition. At least one driver here has covered the clear plastic almost entirely with cardboard, leaving a mere pillar box opening. Communication is definitely not encouraged, and it’s disconcerting.

I read something else which I found odd this week: under European rules (cough), new models of electric and hybrid vehicles are not allowed to run silently: they are obliged to have noise built into them, because pedestrians can’t hear them coming (people can’t hear a fifteen year old TX4 coming when they’re plugged in to an i-pod either). I’m resisting the temptation to shout “Health & Safety gone mad” but, well, really!

I’m always irritated by those attention-seeking drivers of high performance cars driving around making a racket. Maybe the new act of rebellion will be to drive as quietly as you can? Maybe not though, as the whole point is to have everybody looking at them.

Anyway, I’m off to Morrisons to stock up on truffles  … I mean carrots.

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Shopkeepers on Wheels

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine),

It hasn’t been easy for any of us over the last few years. Potential customers are still there, but they are spread across a range of competing transport providers. They always were, of course, but we’re so heavily outnumbered by private hire that it feels like we are losing ground. We just need to try to tempt a bigger chunk of custom over to our side. Easier said than done, I know.

Private hire aren’t having it all their own way though. The biggest threat to traditional private hire companies are Uber. We’re also threatened by Uber, to a lesser extent. The strange thing is that Uber’s own future is uncertain. While they’ve been crawling to TfL in an endeavour to get their licence back, they’ve been denied new licences in York and Brighton, and they have been made unwelcome in various other cities around the world. London is the accepted transport honey pot, though; the big prize. Regulations are slack on the private hire side, but taxi licencing requirements in London are still incredibly stringent, making the licence the hardest to get in the world – as we all know.

Provincial licensing authorities look to London to see how TfL react to Uber. Emboldened by TfL’s refusal to re-licence Uber, other cities now have the confidence to do what is right and stop them in their tracks. It’s scandalous that Uber are still allowed to operate having been unfit, though they could be in for another kicking should they lose their appeal against TfL later this month.

If Uber are re-licensed, either in London or elsewhere, they will have to make changes and their business model will be unsustainable. The current business model only works through saturating the market with drivers, covering up criminal activity and data breaches, and working in other people’s areas (there will still be London-licensed Uber drivers working in Brighton whatever happens after the inevitable Brighton appeal).

Workers in any industry assume the customers will always be there, but sometimes they’re not. Look at retail: Woolworths, BHS, and C&A disappeared from British high streets years’ ago, and other long-established retailers are struggling. At the time of writing, Mothercare and Marks and Spencer’s are both in trouble for failing to modernise and acknowledge a shift in shopping habits.

About twenty-five years’ ago, when I was a young butter boy, I remember reading an article by Monty Schiman. I believe the article was entitled Shopkeepers on Wheels. Yes, we need to think like shopkeepers, the better ones. Customers need to be valued and respected at all times. We need to give the people what they want, and we must move with the times. We need to provide a first class service at all times.

Some retailers get complacent and suddenly find themselves out of date. Marks & Spencer’s are still hanging on, but they recently announced store closures because people have switched to shopping online. M&S have often been criticised for being old-fashioned. Even as a twenty year old shopping in Romford, M&S held no interest for me. As I got older I’d shop there now and again, but it never became an exciting place to spend my valuable time. M&S was never a young person’s shop. Maybe we’re not a young person’s transport service with all that waving your hand in the air? There’s no longer any need to visit the high street to shop, nor to hail a cab. As customers desert the high street, those hardy souls who still venture into the outside world order transport on-line in the same way. Thankfully, the trade does have computerised booking apps. They aren’t as well-known as Uber, but with Uber weakened, they might help us regain custom.

If the terms “Taxi” and “Private Hire” are interchangeable in London, they are even more so in the provinces. I recently saw what we are up against. Following a boozy wedding in rural Oxfordshire, my wife and I needed to get to our guest house in South Oxford. With no cab ranks around, our hosts asked the barmaid to call us a taxi. What arrived was a mini-cab. Never mind, like most boozed-up members of the cab-riding public, we just wanted to get home. I have to say, the experience was faultless.

In a hurry to get off on the following, the missus asked a passing chef to help book us a taxi. It was a small guest house, but they had some kind of booking App on their wall. It looked a sophisticated piece of equipment, and not one I’d expect to see in a £75 guest house on Iffley Road. He pressed the button a few times, and told us a blue Toyota would be with us in three minutes.

We need to get our thinking caps on and think about how taxis are hailed generally. There are many towns and cities around the world where waving your hand is unusual. Maybe it’s just a London and New York thing? I’ve never waved a cab down in Leighton Buzzard where I live, and it was considered unusual in Northampton where I previously lived. It was all ranks and phones.

Is the solution to install booking Apps on walls? Maybe. The PH one in Oxford wasn’t Uber, it was a smaller private hire firm. I’m sure if modest private hire companies have the power, then we should have the ability to fix booking Apps on to London hotel walls.

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Electric Dreams

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

Something strange happened at the start of the year: electric charging points started to mushroom up all over London. The last time I wrote about electric cabs I believe there was one solitary rapid charger in the city. Now they’re everywhere!

To add to the excitement there are expected to be two additional models of electric taxi available by the end of the year. There are still price concerns, but at least the charging situation looks a bit better.

I’m sure many of us are waiting for a sustained improvement in trade before committing to a new cab, particularly with three models to compare. I’m hoping at least one of the new cabs will be affordable. I sigh with relief every year my high-mileage seven-year old TX4 gets through its annual inspection. I feel I’m riding my luck. Every year the dents and the paint blisters get worse. Every year I worry that the gearbox or engine will pack up, and I’ll be faced with the garage bill from hell, or the prospect of committing to several years of huge monthly payments on a new cab. Every year I promise myself a new cab if trade improves. Every year I think how nice it would be to actually hear what my passengers are saying to me.

At the moment though, the idea remains a range-extended pipe dream. I can’t afford the new LEVC offering. I don’t know enough about engines to risk the second-hand market, and if I struck now it’d be another dirty noisy diesel. Like it or not, the future is electric. A diesel cab will feel like the Flintstone’s car in a few years.

Diesel vehicle drivers are already being demonised. Some local authorities are starting to charge extra for parking, and in some areas of London, diesel vehicles aren’t allowed at all. Hackney and Islington have designated some ultra-low emission roads in the Shoreditch area. From July, nine roads will be verboten to petrol and diesel-powered vehicles. Can they legally do this? Who knows, but these directives are hard to challenge. Can we at least assume that every Hackney Council vehicle needing to drive down the banned streets will be electric? All road maintenance vehicles and dust carts? All the social workers and community nurses darting about from place to place. Will fire engines, police cars, and ambulances be exempt? (what fuel do emergency vehicles run on anyway?).

In these days of choice and cut-throat competition, I think the cab trade needs a distinctive vehicle in order to capture the public imagination. Most of the people I pick up at the weekends are tourists. Many cab aficionados want a taxi that looks and feels nothing like the car they have on their driveway at home. I’m not sure a van conversion is going to do it, but we’ll see what the Nissan Dynamo looks like in the summer. The other two models are unique enough. They’re different from the TX4, but they still look like taxis.

We’ll have to compare the range the different vehicles can cover before switching to petrol – and then ultimately running out of petrol and grinding to a halt. The Nissan Dynamo doesn’t come with a petrol engine at all (Will the RAC be equipped with mobile chargers?).  Reading about the new cabs and chargers in Taxi I was thinking about an account job I had recently: Pall Mall to Gatwick. It took one hour and fifty minutes to get there, then two and a half hours to drive eighty miles home to Bedfordshire on three congested motorways. An electric car driver could come unstuck on a run like that. It would have been unbearably stressful had I been worrying about running out of fuel.

Living forty miles from Central London I’ll certainly be researching charging points locally before committing. I haven’t seen any in Leighton Buzzard yet, though we do have electricity. And colour television. I suppose a slow charger will give me an excuse to sit in a pub for an hour or two, but that novelty will soon wear off. Even waiting around for half an hour every day is a no-no for me. That’s twenty-five minutes more than I currently spend re-fuelling. That’s technology going backwards, surely? I’ve no idea how home-charging works: do you just run an extension cable through your letter box like when you mow the lawn?

I’m not sure how much it costs to charge a taxi with electricity, but I assume the current price is an introductory offer. We’re still in the dark as to how much this whole electric cab project is going to cost us day to day. One thing that is only just being talked about is the fact that to be allowed to charge up with electricity at certain sites you need to take out a subscription – up to £32 per month from what I hear.

The last time I wrote about electric cabs, our biggest energy supplier, British Gas were about to put their electricity prices up by 12.5%. During the writing of this piece I heard that their customers on dual-fuel tariffs are facing an additional 5.5% rise, with both British Gas and N-Power. Maybe things will get more competitive? Possibly, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that by the time most of us have converted we’ll be spending about as much as we’re currently spending on re-fuelling with diesel. We’ll see. ..

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