Tag Archives: third world driving experience

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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London’s 3rd World Travel Experience

(Original of article for Taxi magazine).

Trains, Planes, Automobiles

Most of us would agree that Britain’s transport infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with new demands, and that we need to modernise in order to serve a growing population and to retain the competitive edge in and attracting global investment.

The debate continues over new air terminals and high speed trains.  We’re told that rival European airports are better equipped to handle large volumes of flights from new economic powerhouses such as China.  And once on English soil, our trains aren’t fast enough  – the journey from London to Birmingham taking an outrageous ninety minutes.

I’m not sure shaving twenty minutes off a train ride to Birmingham is going to make much difference, and I’m not sure it’s the frequency of flights from Shanghai that’s holding us back.   It’s the third world experience on the local infrastructure that’s causing the problem. 

Arrive at Heathrow jet-lagged from the Far East and make for Central London.  There’s nowhere to put your bags on the tube, and the stop-start routine becomes an overcrowded pain by Earl’s Court.  Pay an exorbitant £21 for a fifteen-minute overground train journey, but you only get as far as Paddington.  Take a cab all the way from Heathrow?  Things go well enough until the M4 narrows.  Then, you’ve no sooner cleared the flyovers, than you’re swerving around coaches on Cromwell Road, and in more stop-start traffic past Harrods. 

At least there’s some established infrastructure around Heathrow, however inadequate.  The train to Gatwick is fine, but try doing it by road.   It’s a devil of a drive and there’s hardly any motorway.  Visitors understandably expect a place that markets itself as a London airport to be in London, not half way to Brighton.  People wonder what they’re doing in a one-way system in Streatham an hour into the journey.  This is why I often try to talk people out of a cab ride to Gatwick.  I just don’t need the hassle.  There’s been talk about an airport on an island in Kent.  Ever tried driving to Kent?  Any major transport hub that involves bridges and tunnels is bound to be a disaster.

London’s traffic congestion is the worse in Europe bar Brussels.  Travelling by road can be even worse at weekends and on bank holidays.  Aiming for Heathrow by road on a Sunday sounds sensible.  The tubes might not be running, but you can rely on a trusty London cab.  It’ll be all right, it’s the A4 and M4 all the way.  On Piccadilly your passenger is looking up from his reading matter.  Why have we stopped?  Traffic is down to one lane between St James Street and Hyde Park Corner.  Why are people allowed to park outside the Ritz?  Why are those big vans allowed to obstruct the carriageway further down where people sell art work?  This is the main road to Wales and the West!

Many of London’s major train stations pose difficulties for the driver.  You have to queue in one and a half lanes of Gordon Street to get across Euston Road for Euston Station; you might have to queue to set down at Paddington; and there’s one-way mayhem at Victoria.  I’m never sure where we’re meant to drop off at Liverpool Street.  Top of Old Broad Street is my choice, if it’s open.  Not that you can go right up to the station this way because of the money-making cameras.  The short journey from the Bloomsbury area to St Pancras now involves a major detour around squares and one-way streets.  Even then, there might be a crane blocking the top of Mabledon Place.  Driving from St Pancras to Paddington can mean queuing up at Euston Underpass.  You can’t use the slip as a bypass and go straight through, as you can in the opposite direction, as that’s for buses only.  You can turn left into Gower Street and join Euston Road later on, but you have to fight your way past ambulance ranks and buses (I’ve never understood why ambulances are parked on the street; surely the best place for an ambulance is in a hospital).       

Some of the road chaos can be avoided by clear advance warning.  Sometimes you get yellow signs with a vague description of roads affected, sometimes nothing.  Working weekends, you never know if Old Bailey, Chancery Lane, Cannon Street, or Fleet Street are going to be open until you’ve tried using them.  Signage is sloppy and inadequate.  I’ve noticed recently that you never know if the Diversion signs are warning of a diversion further  along that particular street, or if the problem is elsewhere and you’re advised to use this street as a diversion.  

Most visitors to London will experience our unique travel chaos at some point.  There’s no real rush hour, the roads are jammed for most of the day.  You can get to Paris all right, but once back in Blighty, your onward journey can be fraught with problems.  The buses are slow, the tube trains are full, and inter-city train travel is expensive and unreliable.  Cycle rickshaws helpfully reinforce the third world ambiance.  The journey to the airport needs to be planned carefully.  Heathrow has its problems, but has some established infrastructure.  Gatwick is too far out to be considered a proper London airport and, other options put forward sound unconvincing. 

I’m not really qualified to know what the answer is, but spending so much time on the roads we can all see how improvements can be made here.  Halt road narrowing, remove unnecessary traffic lights, ban parking on major roads, inform of all road closures clearly and in advance.  These are just a few ideas.  High speed trains and bigger airports are only as good as the roads and rails serving them.  Maybe we need to think locally before we think globally?

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