Tag Archives: mini-cabs

What have the mini-cabs ever done for us?

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

With all the fuss over Uber, few commentators have stopped to ask how private hire started in the first place.

On the surface of it, all a taxi driver does is drive a customer from point A to point B for money.  A deceptively simple business plan, and one that has been exploited for many years by those unwilling to go through the effort of gaining a proper licence.

From the very beginning, London has led the way in safety, and has stipulated strict licensing rules.  As a result, your London cab driver will have had strict background checks, years of testing on his topographical knowledge, and will have passed an enhanced driving test.  The cabs are all 100% accessible and are built like tanks.  Fares are calculated by a meter that cannot be tampered with.  Taxi and private hire laws were developed over time in to keep the public safe.  They were generally adequate until the American invasion of Uber.

It’s the way of the world that where exists a successful service; someone will come along and undercut you.  Our trade was challenged in 1961 when Welbeck Motors emerged to muscle in on taxi work.  Welbeck flooded the streets with a fleet of red Renault Dauphines, and exploited technology by using two-way radios.  The company secured financial backing, and lobbied for the support of Members of Parliament to run a “mini-taxi” service.  They didn’t receive explicit approval, but they had sections of the press on their side.

There are clearly parallels with modern day Uber, where lower overheads and lax restrictions allowed mini-cab operators to undercut taxis and work to lower standards of safety and driver training.  Welbeck Motors and Uber both had money behind them which they used to influence politicians and the media.  I’d imagine that Welbeck were seen as trendy and as progressive as Uber when they arrived on our shores.

Although Welbeck Motors went into liquidation in 1965, other interested parties were waiting in the wings to exploit loopholes in stringent Hackney Carriage Laws and create a second tier cab service using two-way radio.

Drivers were recruited to mini-cab firms, typically operating out of doorways. They weren’t officially licensed, but so long as they were pre-booked and their journeys were logged they could operate legally.

Mini-cab drivers and vehicles were eventually licensed by the Public Carriage Office in 2000.  Some firms got their acts together and ran their businesses professionally, while other ones folded.

In London, there have been no restrictions on the number of private hire licenses issued.   In the case of taxis, numbers have risen very slowly over the years, kept down naturally by the Knowledge process.  Suburban taxi licences were suspended for a while due to over-supply, but private hire licences have continued to be issued in huge numbers – despite over-supply!  In order to service the Uber organisation, by 2016, several hundred licences a week were being issued (licensing has slowed in 2017).

If hundreds of taxi licences were being issued each week, there would be angry talk about congestion and pollution.  Many thousands of extra taxis on the streets would be noticed.    You barely notice mini-cabs.  London mini-cabs don’t have plates and roof signs as in the rest of the country.  Signage is pretty low key if it exists at all, and the private hire licence sticker on the back window is virtually unreadable.  It’s often disguised further by the tinted glass that TfL allow private hire vehicles to have, but not taxis.

The private hire industry can always undercut taxis on price because of lower running costs.  London taxis have had to be purpose-built in order to conform to stringent safety standards – and the famous twenty-five foot turning circle (I’m unsure if this applied in the days of horse-drawn cabs).  Crucially, private hire drivers enjoy a free reign in their choice of vehicle – and they don’t need to spend £55,600 on a new vehicle.

Uber showed that through over-supply they could promise a car within a few minutes of booking.  Until Uber’s business model was discussed in the wake of TfL re-licensing refusal, the general public didn’t know how it was done.  People now know how badly their drivers are treated.  They’ve heard about the dubious criminal records checks, and the covering-up of alleged sexual attacks.  People know that foreign operators can choose where to pay their tax, and this is not going to be in the UK.

Uber’s drivers don’t have to reach the earning targets that lured them in as they can claim benefits to top-up their income.  The drivers are also now aware of the con.  They are dependent on the provision of work, but they have been classed as self-employed.  If Uber lose their appeal against the ruling that their drivers are actually employees it could cost the operator tens of thousands of pounds just to pay National Insurance for 50,000 of its British drivers.  This is just one of Uber’s current problems.

Traditional private hire companies tick over, but Uber over-reached themselves.  Like Welbeck at the start of the 1960s, Uber are finding out that short cuts don’t work.  They have failed to retain the goodwill of their drivers, or the confidence of the public.  It’s only a matter of time before its investors wash the toxins off their hands and move on to the Next Big Thing.


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Mind Your Language

(Original edit of latest article for Taxi magazine. The version in this week’s mag has been “toughened up” by the editor, and is a lot different).

Mind Your Language

I fear I might have been too sympathetic to the plight of our private hire friends recently. I hit out at operators lowering their fares and hiking up company commission; and I generally supported the drivers’ industrial action against exploitation. Only a few weeks’ later my sympathy wilted when I read they were getting into a tizz over TfLs tightening of licensing requirements.
One complaint is that they have to buy and display proper insurance certificates. August’s PHC magazine looks at TfLs “controversial” decision and asks why PH drivers should carry Hire & Reward insurance even when they are not carrying passengers. It seems many PH drivers resent paying out for insurance when they are on holiday, or when they are not using their school run vehicles over the summer holidays. Steve Wright, Chairman of the Licensed Private Hire Car Association, calls the insurance issue “discriminatory” and “massively unfair.” My first reaction was that business must be good if drivers can take a month or two off to visit relatives in other parts of the world, or enjoy twelve weeks’ off by working to the school timetable.
But it’s reasonable for drivers to make extended visits to their homelands, and I don’t doubt that they put the hours in for the larger part of the year. The insurance issue is blamed on a taxi trade tantrum. The taxi trade undoubtedly brought the issue to attention, after shock at discovering that continuous Hire & Reward insurance for private hire drivers wasn’t already law, and that PH drivers could turn insurance off and on before the new legislation came in. There are plenty of part-time taxi drivers, and plenty who spend long periods abroad visiting relatives. Can drivers claim an insurance rebate for their fortnight in Spain? Similarly, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suspend your road fund licence, breakdown cover, or residents’ parking permits, for a short period. Theoretically, no-one should need Hire & Reward insurance when we’re not carrying passengers. This could include when we’re driving in and out of our licensing area if we live outside London, and when we’re cruising for work or on ranks. I understand the desire for flexibility, but car insurance isn’t something that you can opt in and out of. If insurance becomes flexible, you get into many grey areas, and it becomes more open to abuse. It would be an administrative nightmare, and would most likely start to cost more. PH drivers can make savings elsewhere: apart from the vehicle itself, they save £200 a year by using their phone as a meter.
PHC’s feature warns that drivers will be antagonised and may break the rules. If PH cars had to display their insurance like we do, it would be easier for Compliance Officers or the Police to check they’re operating safely and legally. Maybe this is what some are afraid of; that when they sit outside St Pancras or on their unofficial ranks, they are on offer to the authorities.
In the age of computers, anyone can knock up a genuine-looking insurance certificate, and send a photocopy to a PH operator. Alternatively, you could genuinely take out Hire and Reward insurance, then cancel it once the certificate’s been checked. You could then take out a cheaper leisure-use policy, or just carry on with nothing and hope for the best. I’m not sure if these practices are widespread, but it’s certainly been done.
Dodgy documents are best produced by criminals who have a grasp of English. TfL will soon be testing PH applicants’ understanding of English, and this is another objection we’ve heard recently. I don’t think a driver’s English has to be perfect, but it should be good enough to discuss destinations and routes. This is reasonable and the minimum that the public should expect. In the language issue it’s not just the drivers’ grasp of English we need to think about, it’s also the customers. Often, a foreigner’s use of English is better than a native speaker. We’ve all come across folk born and bred on these shores to whisper, mumble, and slur; and miss-pronounce words out of all proportion. We have to deal with a lot of strange accents, British and foreign. I consider myself to have a good grasp of English, but I can’t understand everybody. An English test will help though, as it’ll give drivers a fighting chance of understanding most people, particularly when customers mumble about a changed destination half way through a journey.
From October, PH operators have to provide TfL with their drivers’ photos and National Insurance number. Again, I presumed this was being done anyway. It sounds to me that things have been very slack since PH was officially licensed, and the drivers and operators have got used to doing what they want. This isn’t the fault of private hire; it’s the fault of the licencing authority that’s let standards slip. Now, when they decide to raise standards and protect the public; it’s too much of a shock to the system. The private hire industry provides a flexible way of making a living. The taxi trade is more highly regulated, but in essence it’s just as flexible. We’re talking about standards and public safety here, and flexibility can only go so far.

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The Wild West End

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I recently read about the rickshaw rider who tried to charge a Dutch tourist £600 for a thirty-minute journey.  Thankfully, the tourist stood firm and argued back.  The rider was filmed by passers-by and consequently shamed in the modern way.  There must be scores of similar rickshaw scams going on that are never discovered, where the victims pay up out of embarrassment of having seemingly agreed to the fare.

I’m normally tucked up in bed before midnight, but London’s night time economy brings out all the chancers offering to drive people home:  rickshaw rip-off merchants, rogue mini cab drivers, dodgy app-based car providers, and the myriad of blokes who chance their arm with unlicensed cars.  Most people get home, eventually, but you’d expect the public to be afforded more protection against the plethora of dubious hire and reward transport providers. The response is that nothing can be done about the rickshaws, or the issuing of hundreds of private hire licences every week in order to service app-based car providers operating in grey areas of the law.  Add madcap road systems that slow everything down, and the result is a transport system run like the wild west, in a city resembling a third world capital.

I’m sure visitors to London are aware that we live to very strict regulations:  do anything illegal and you’ll be caught on camera.  They are everywhere, watching your every move.  Visitors also expect our transport laws to be strict and enforceable.  Buses, trains and taxis, are regulated to an inch of their lives – down to what colour interior door handles are.  Thankfully, the things that go on in taxis in other countries doesn’t go on here.  Visitors know they can trust us.  But lower down the transport food chain, the regulations are slacker and the regulations blurred.  Private hire cars are allowed to obscure their licence stickers with tinted windows while pretending to be limousines.  Our friends, the rickshaw riders give the impression they are officially endorsed by way of phoney licence plates and fare tables.  The fare chart gives the impression of an official pricing structure, and the rider can claim that having it on display constitutes an agreement.  The rider’s hire and reward operation doesn’t need a licence, so there’s nobody to complain to.

London has many of the attributes of a third world capital.  There’s the unhealthy divide between rich and poor, where the less well-off are being socially cleansed.  On the transport front, there are badly congested roads full of pot holes, nonsensical traffic systems, and seemingly pointless road works that last for years.  Pancras Road between King’s Cross and St Pancras resembles Mumbai on a bad day with its triple parking free-for-all.  It’s all contributing to authentic third world pollution.

I rarely see the Police in Bedfordshire where I live, but there are enough of them in London to mount checkpoints and saunter around with machine guns.  They don’t control the traffic when the chips are down, like in a real third world capital.  Other groups have taken on the role of traffic management; such as the paramilitary builders who operate like lollypop ladies when they want their contractors’ lorries to pull out without waiting their turn.

Those who drive themselves around are fair game to modern day highwaymen; those legally-endorsed pirates who fine and photograph motorists who accidently get caught with a wheel touching a box junction.

There’s not a lot I feel I can do about it all as I watch yet another madcap traffic scheme add to the frustration of driving in London.  All I feel I can do is write about it, and contribute to consultations.  I’ll carry on driving my diesel-powered filth cart until a cleaner and cheaper alternative becomes available.

The city in which I work is changing rapidly.  Things are more difficult and uncertain.  London residents will have noticed that the old certainties have gone.  Taxis have always been seen as expensive, but reliable.  The cheaper alternative was to take your chances with a mini-cab.  Every man and his dog now wants to work as a cab driver and it’s easier than ever – maybe we should be flattered that so many people want to do our job?  Recent developments in private hire licensing has resulted in many thousand more private hire licences being issued, and a blurring of the boundaries.  Over the new year period, people using an app-based private hire service were shocked to find hundreds of pounds taken from their credit card accounts by way of surge pricing.  The operator would say they didn’t read the small print, so there’s nothing they can do about it.

Is the body who are meant to be controlling everything that happens on the streets taking enough responsibility?  Local authorities need to be reined in and prevented from implementing complex road systems that slow the traffic down and make driving more difficult. Driving should be made easier, not harder.  Traffic schemes that look good on paper, don’t always work in practice.

Rickshaws aren’t normally motorised, but they are vehicles.  Vehicles shouldn’t be obstructing junctions and forcing buses out of bus lanes so they can rank up.  If they are working for hire and reward they should be subject to licensing laws.  The app-based providers have exploited loopholes in order to ply for immediate hire by phone.  The race to the bottom by way of cheaper fares isn’t healthy for anyone.  Safety is compromised for both drivers and customers, as drivers are forced to work longer hours to make a living.  Today’s society is in many ways over protective, but at the lower rungs of hire and reward transport, it’s still a free-for-all.

Reports of tourists being ripped off aren’t good for the reputation of London, and particularly for those of us who depend on tourism.  London’s streets are becoming like the wild west, though the sheriff is nowhere to be seen.

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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