Tag Archives: Uber

Are You Uber in Disguise?

(Original medit of article for Taxi magazine).

I was dismayed to hear that a case of touting in Reading by a TfL licensed minicab was thrown out. Part of the reason given was that the car wasn’t easily identified as a private hire vehicle because nobody could read the TfL licence roundel on the back window.

There are around 24,000 taxi drivers competing with around 114,000 private hire drivers (21,000 actual taxis and 87,000 PH vehicles). We’re easily identified, our competitors are not. Most London-licensed private hire vehicles carry no identifying marks, apart from the little sticker on the back window. The sticker might as well be an Aero wrapper. You won’t notice it on a tinted window unless you are two feet away from the vehicle, and you won’t be able to read the licence number until you are at point-blank range. There are no PH plates or roof signs, by law.

With all the talk about congestion and pollution, I wonder if TfL are disguising their licenced private hire cars on purpose. Are they now ashamed of their unrestricted private hire licensing policy? I think so. I think if the public noticed that nearly every “private” car in Central London was actually a minicab they’d raise a fuss and force TfL to do something.

There are currently 87,000 minicabs exempt from the Congestion Charge. It’s good that they are considering making PH drivers pay the charge, but I’m sceptical it’ll ever happen anytime soon. Like the various Uber issues, there will be years of legal wrangling and court appeals. By the time the charge is brought in most vehicles will be electric and exempt anyway. Or the whole taxi and private hire trade will be run by self-driving pods.

The New York licensing authority is planning to cap the number of Uber cars licensed. TfL keep saying they need an Act of Parliament before they can cap private hire licensing. A while back, Mayor Khan claimed to have tried to get the government to change its unlimited licensing policy, but didn’t hear back. We now hear he’s written to the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling. Let’s hope he put a stamp on the letter this time.

Note that the figures above relate to the whole of the Greater London boroughs. Taxi licences also include yellow badge drivers licensed only for certain outer-London boroughs. Drivers licensed in Barnet and Enfield and Hounslow are not allowed to pick up in inner-London’s green badge area. Minicabs can operate all over London – and semi-legally, it seems, in any other towns of the driver’s choosing, such as in Brighton, Southend and at Gatwick Airport. Uber even tried to draw up their own borders!

The issue of cross-border hiring surely affects provincial towns more than it affects London: it seems London-licenced private hire cars are running riot in the provinces. Maybe there should be private hire sectors, such as the taxis’ Suburban sectors?

TfL have tightened up a bit on its licensing requirements, but there’s still a long way to go before adequate standards are put in place. TfL are still one of the country’s go-to authorities for a quickie PH licence, with few questions asked, and inadequate checking of criminal records and insurance.

Of course, we go back to the identification problem: nobody can identify TfL private hire vehicles. The issue of identification will remain should cross border hiring be curtailed. And it seems while identification is an issue, enforcement will remain impossible.

Private hire drivers disguise themselves pretty well too. “A Minicab driver? Who me?” However smartly Uber drivers dress, they’re still minicab drivers, and they’re still driving for a minicab company. The smart, sombre, attire is worn to confuse us: are they over-dressed minicab drivers, or MI5 operatives? TfL love black suits. As a Knowledge Examiner I sometimes had to ask the Men in Black to help me access the Palestra building when my swipe card stopped working. Everyone’s a terrorist suspect at TfL, and everyone who works on the front line carries a serious demeanour. I find it amusing now I’m no longer there, but it must have scared the life out of the Knowledge Boys and Girls who used to go up to Palestra for an Appearance. Personally, I don’t trust anyone who wears a black suit in the daytime!

I presume TfL also license tour buses? After a weekend of being caught behind buses blocking up Ludgate Hill and Buckingham Palace Road I wondered what London would look like if tour bus numbers ever reach 113,000?


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New Year Cheer

(My first Taxi article of the year).

Let’s start off the New Year the way we mean to go on, with a discussion on Uber – come on, you love it! Even those of us who wanted to relax and think about other things during the Christmas season couldn’t help thinking about the latest Uber-related developments, and wonder what 2018 has in store for us all.

Over the last two years, taxi trade talk has been dominated by the goings on at Uber. Things became interesting when TfL realised they’d made a mistake in licensing Uber and tried to tighten up with topographical testing, English tests, a closer look at criminal record recording, and a tightening up of insurance requirements (does on/off mini-cab insurance really exist?). Uber kicked back as expected, and elements of these proposals remain contested. Another important issue is still being fought over: whether Uber’s drivers are employees or self-employed. It’s likely Uber will lose their final appeal later this year, which means they will have to treat its drivers as self-employed with all the benefits and comforts that comes with that. Uber’s business model will be out the window and they will pose less of a threat.


Interest turned to shock in September when TfL refused Uber a new licence. TfL did the right thing after Uber made it easy for them. Uber’s supporters say they should be given another chance. Sorry, but they already had their second chance: they were given a temporary licence for four months in which to get their house in order. Uber were arrogant and behaved even worse during this period. Even as they were crawling to TfL to get their licence back, it transpired that Uber had paid a $100,000 ransom to criminals to stop them hacking fifty-seven million Uber apps worldwide, and to keep quiet about it.


Uber have been refused a new operating licence, but did they get a hard refusal or a soft refusal? What I don’t understand is why they are allowed to operate after being refused a licence? Would a taxi driver be allowed to operate after being named unfit and improper? If a taxi driver has a serious complaint against him he’d be suspended from working immediately. When taxi and private hire criminal records were moved from the CRB to the DBS many drivers experienced long delays when renewing their licences. They were told by TfL that they could not work until their records came back so they could be re-licensed. Thousands of Uber drivers suspected of being issued with dodgy DBS certificates are working as normal. So all those taxi drivers we read about in the pages of Taxi who were concerned about their livelihoods needn’t have worried; they could simply carry on cabbing. I was asked by another driver whether Uber were still recruiting. I’ve no idea, but it’s an interesting question. Could new drivers be recruited to an unlicensed operator? And if so, as an employee or as a self-employed “partner”?  


Many towns and cities have been invaded by out of town drivers licensed in other places. Councils are powerless to stop cross-border hiring, or to deal with complaints if the drivers are not licensed in the town they are working in. With Uber causing a nuisance everywhere they go, councils looked to London for guidance. TfL’s belated decision to ban Uber has emboldened private hire authorities around the country to refuse licences. In the run-up to Christmas we heard about bans on Uber in Sheffield and York, and Uber only being granted a temporary licence in Brighton. Sheffield and Brighton have suffered considerably by out-of-town Uber invasions undermining existing local services and licensing authorities. Sheffield suspended Uber’s licence on December 18th following the operator’s failure to provide information about its management structure. The City of York ended Uber’s licence on Christmas Eve. Councillors voted seven to three in favour of the ban; on the grounds of the data breaches that affected fifty-seven million App. users worldwide, and the number of complaints against Uber in York. At the time of the ban there weren’t many Uber drivers licensed in York, but over 50% of complaints were against Uber drivers licenced out of town. Drivers that York’s licencing authority can’t do anything about. Out of 155 taxi and private hire complaints received from December 2016, only four concerned drivers or vehicles licenced in York. Banning Uber was greeted by cheers in the chamber. Hear, hear!


2018 is going to be an interesting year. Work levels in December were better than in the last few years, and It’s realistic to expect that this year’s kipper season won’t be quite as flat as the past couple of years. Uber are on the run for sure. I’d like to think we won’t be talking about them this time next year, but I expect we will.


What else can we take stock of? The credit card issue is over a year old, but there are still concerns. I think the issue of fees has faded, but many of us have processed cards only to have the transaction fail after the customer has walked off.


Who got caught out when they closed Cannon Street for several days at the start of December? What annoyed me was the red sign warning of Bank Junction’s closure situated right by the traffic cones where you’d normally enter Cannon Street from Queen Victoria Street. You’d think they’d have the sense to at least open Bank Junction up on this occasion to ease the pressure. The issue of Bank is going to run and run this year. Then there’s the threat to close Oxford Street to motor vehicles to contest. And contest it we must. We need to respond to all consultations and make our voices heard. There are plenty of people on our side who will listen. We need to keep our house in order this year and keep their support.


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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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War is Over?

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. Some edits were made in the published version).

I sure picked the right week to quit talking about Uber:  but it’s the big issue of the day, and it’s going to continue for some time yet.  So, here are just a few thoughts about TfL’s decision not to renew Uber’s licence.

Firstly, Uber should never have been licensed in the first place.  They call themselves a tech company, yet they were licensed as a private hire operator.  Either they are a tech firm incorrectly licenced, or they are a PH operator, subject to the responsibilities that they have so far evaded.  Either way, their licence is in breach.  It was clear Uber intended to ply for immediate hire through their app, and they even admitted that they don’t take advance bookings!  If they don’t take advance bookings, they are operating illegally, as private hire cars must be pre-booked.  They admit they still don’t have a landline on which they can be contacted:  as far as I understand it, this is a legal requirement for an operator.

TfL have been quiet about what constitutes plying for hire, because any court case will highlight how negligent TfL have been.  TfL knew Uber should never have been licenced, and when the bad publicity started, they tried desperately to tighten up on them.  Unfortunately, TfL were then hampered by Dave Cameron and his pals’ cosy relationship with the Uber organisation.

Many people think Uber will make concessions in order to be re-licensed, and that this is just a shot across the bows.  Possibly, but what some people forget is that Uber have already had the warning shots:  they were given four months in which to improve things.  They were expected to use that time wisely and to get their house in order.  Uber’s arrogance was such that they behaved even worse.  When it transpired they were covering up sexual assault allegations, things got serious and there was an increasing public clamour for something to be done.

I can understand why people use Uber, but did they really think that if Uber ever became the dominant force in the taxi and private hire world, their low prices would remain?  Surge pricing isn’t just for Christmas, tube strikes and after terrorist attacks.  Their supporters think Uber have a status somewhere between a mini-cab and a taxi.  There is no in-between.  They are a mini-cab, and they are driven my mini-cab drivers.  As one caller to LBC put it:  they are a mini-cab company with good PR.  They are subject to the same rules that all mini-cab operators must comply with.

Personally I think this is going to drag on for as long as Brexit.  I allowed myself a celebratory light ale when I heard the news, but most of us are realistic to know that this isn’t the end.  It might be the beginning of the end though.  They’re not gone yet, but they are weakened, possibly fatally.  I don’t see how they can carry operating in the same way now

Before TfLs decision turned the spotlight on Uber’s affairs, many people thought it was just taxi drivers whingeing.  The general public aren’t particularly interested in what constitutes plying for hire, whether a mobile phone can be used as a taxi meter, or whether a London-licensed mini-cab can legally work in Brighton.

People now have a bit more awareness of the taxi and private hire trades, and the roles and responsibilities within them.  People know there are issues over Uber drivers’ insurance, questions over their criminal record checking, and that Uber were picking and choosing what criminal allegations to mention to the police.  This came from the police themselves, who are thoroughly fed up with them.  These were the issues that made people sit up and think.  Everyone can now see how government interference and having investors in high places has protected them.  Using a footballing metaphor, Uber lost the dressing room.

People can see that the headlines on taxi magazines were true:  Uber haven’t been checking criminal records properly.  They really were ignoring criminal allegations.  An Uber driver really did try to cut someone’s head off at Leytonstone Station while shouting “Allahu Akbar.”  Another was nicked after waving a samurai sword around outside Buckingham Palace.  Those with a conscience can see how they are exploiting not just tax and VAT loopholes and a lax licensing regime, but also its drivers – who they want to replace with driverless cars ASAP.  LBCs James O’Brien likens Uber to a Victorian mill owner.  I like the analogy, although mill owners were locally-based and paid their taxes in the UK.

Have Uber’s investors actually made any money yet?  They must be getting very nervous.  Very nervous.  And their corporate account holders.  It might even make Tesco think about which partner organisations it promotes.  I think the biggest game-changer will be when their investors cash in their chips and Uber are starved of funds.  How many lawsuits are they currently involved in?  This sort of thing isn’t cheap.

Private hire licensing had already slowed.  There will be even fewer drivers clamouring to join Uber now, and many will be trickling back to the mini-cab companies from whence they came.  Even if Uber were re-licensed today, they would find it hard to provide the same level of service as before.  Uber work on over-supply, and they will find it harder to saturate the market when its drivers desert a sinking ship.  As for our future, we need to raise our game and constantly guard against complacency.  TfL have recently shown they’re wise to dubious new start-ups, such as Taxify, but others will come and try it on.  We need to be ready.  When the war is over and the dust has settled, the public will decide who are the best.


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Round the U-Bend

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Some people still think there are too many cabs on the streets – or more accurately, too many cab drivers.  In fact, driver numbers are reducing, and there are fewer people starting the Knowledge. Drivers are retiring, and fewer would-be cab drivers are prepared to sign up for three years of blood, sweat and tears; not knowing what kind of future the trade holds for them.  Their big question is:  will Uber destroy the London cab trade?

Uber’s aim is clear:  to build up a power base of investors and government lobbyists, then use loopholes in taxi and private hire legislation in order to dismantle taxi and private hire operations around the world (well done to Reading and North Tyneside for having the courage to ban Uber).

There’s been a lot of talk about English tests for private hire drivers, but it’s a minor factor.  It might slow licensing down, but other factors are likely to prove more decisive.  The employment status factor is interesting:  should Uber lose their appeal and be forced to treat its drivers as employees, they will have to provide the rights and benefits that apply to regular employees.  Uber can currently undercut taxis and competing PH firms, but if they are forced to grant employment rights it’s a different story.  Uber’s business model will be destroyed and it won’t be able to sustain cheap fares.

Then there’s the publicity angle.  Many high-ranking employees have left in the wake of negative publicity:  over twenty staff members left following allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination of female staff.  The high number of sex attacks Uber’s drivers have been accused of has also caused concern:  the Met recently reported a 50% rise in allegations against Uber drivers.  One of the most alarming incidents concerned the rape of a woman in India by an Uber driver.  The driver who attacked the woman was jailed for this, and other crimes; but not before an Uber executive obtained the medical records of the victim in order to discredit her.  The executive responsible was sacked after journalists discovered details of the incident.

As the bad publicity continued, Dodgy Dave Cameron’s friend, Rachel Whetsone found it too hot and left.  More recently, CEO Travis Kalanick, was forced to resign when investors turned against him.

The biggest turning point will be when investors start to pull out of this increasingly toxic brand.  Reports suggest that those trying to sell their investment are finding it hard to find buyers.

There’s such a vast conveyor belt of drivers required to maintain Uber’s model of over-supply, that if licences are capped, the company will be weakened.  It will no longer be able to guarantee a car within three minutes – a pretty impressive selling point to be fair.  Its drivers might be less inclined to put up with current working practices should they become more sought after.

The good news is that private hire licensing is already slowing down.  It’s reached saturation point where too many drivers are chasing too few jobs and no-one is making any money.  Unless numbers continue to fall, a cap on licences looks inevitable.  No-one thinks having 117,000 mini-cabs on the streets of London is a good thing, and if that figure rises, something will have to be done.

London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, isn’t happy about the traffic mayhem and pollution that unrestricted PH licensing has caused.  Mr Khan and the government have been arguing whether the Mayor actually sought a change in the law to restrict PH numbers.  Mr Khan said he’s “written a number of times” to Transport Under Secretary, Andrew Jones.  Mr Jones replied in the House claiming he’d “made no formal representations on capping the number of private hire licences in London to the Secretary of State or Department of Transport Ministers.”  Who should we believe?  This sounds like Cameron’s government denying they’d put pressure on Boris when he wanted to curb Uber.  We’ve seen the emails, Dave.

Uber, as they stand now, can put competing PH firms out of business in the race to the bottom.  We’re in a stronger position as we can ply for hire in the traditional way.  Our numbers might be gradually reducing, but there’s still a trickle of new blood through the Knowledge system.  Those of us left standing will still be able to respond to street hails and service the many hotel and station ranks.  That work won’t necessarily go to Uber.

If PH licensing is capped, the number of drivers will reduce dramatically.  Most people don’t stay in the PH trade for long.  There will be a queue of drivers attempting to apply, but those already licensed will still renew their licence every year.  Those who stop driving a mini-cab will keep their licence should they ever want to return in the future.  A PH license also serves as a Congestion Charge season ticket:  who’s going to give that up? (something else that needs looking at).

I don’t think TfL have the courage to refuse Uber another licence: there’s too much pressure from powerful people.  But I think things will become less favourable for the PH trade anyway; particularly for Uber, when their investors desert the sinking ship.  With Uber gone, or at least greatly weakened, many of its drivers might return to the less rapacious PH companies.  Things might settle down in the taxi and private hire world and go back to where they were a few years’ ago.  Wasn’t it great when all we had to worry about were Addison Lee?

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The Personal Touch

(More thought s about driver-less cabs and the de-personalisation of society.  This is my original edit of an article written for Taxi magazine).

Non-cab driving friends often taunt me that self-driving taxis are on their way.  I still laugh off their claims.  Recently, a driver-less car being tested by Uber ran a red light in San Francisco.  They tried to say there was a human driving, but there wasn’t.  Keep wasting your money, it’s not going to happen.

Even if taxis and mini-cabs were replaced by self-driving machines, would the public have enough confidence to travel in a cab with no driver?  And has the personal touch been underestimated?

In the unlikely event such a thing ever happens, it’ll surely happen in the USA first.  Eugene Salomon is the author of the wonderful Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver.  He recently conducted an informal survey of his passengers, and found a good 90% saying they’d never get into a driverless taxi.  If automated vehicles continue to run red lights, that’s a given.  But it’s not just about safety.  Eugene says the best taxi rides are the ones where both driver and customer share an interesting interaction.  Not just an efficient, but dull, ride in silence.

Human interaction is continuously being factored out of daily life through technology.  Look at how few tills there are in your supermarket, and how we are encouraged to use the self-scanning facility.  Apart from the frustration at being continuously told you’ve put your shopping in the wrong place, or have got the wrong bag, I find the whole experience depressing.  It’s an impersonal experience.

And all I can think of is the redundant staff who’ve made room for the machines.  Who benefits from replacing humans with robots?  In classic Marxism, those who own the means of production have the power.  That means the supermarkets and it means Uber.  Uber are never going to win an Investors in People award, and their move towards driver-less mini-cabs shows their intention to lay off all their drivers ASAP.  It’s highly unlikely that the remaining supermarket workers’ wages have been raised through savings made on laying off those replaced by machines.  You can be sure that the profits made go straight to the shareholders.

Let’s look at other modes of transport.  There are no conductors on buses any more, and no cash changes hands.  We hardly notice the person with the gallant responsibility of driving the huge red monster.  You’re virtually encouraged to see the driver as a robot merely opening and shutting the doors.  Please don’t speak to the driver or distract his attention.  Scan your Oyster Card and move quickly inside before you become a victim of knife crime.

Air travel is an interesting one:  most of the flight is programmed by technology:  the pilot’s role is largely in taking off and landing.  As a nervous flyer I don’t like to think about that when I’m up in the air; I like to imagine two highly-skilled pilots deep in concentration.  Driver-less aeroplanes?  Would you trust an Uber-operated jumbo to perform an emergency landing on the Hudson River?  You can almost imagine the surge pricing supplement should they manage to pull it off.

I don’t want to give Ryanair ideas, but what if there were no cabin crew?  Imagine no re-assuring waving of the arms as they go through the safety procedures.  What if you had to get your own refreshments from a vending machine at the back?  It wouldn’t be the same.  You might not expect long chats with the flight attendants, but their presence gives you confidence (encountering turbulence I always look over to the flight attendants:  if their faces aren’t contorted in fear, I stay calm).  It’s more than that though:  it’s nice to see a human face, and have someone to talk to if necessary.

I don’t generally encourage my cab passengers to talk.  Partly because I’m no socialite, and partly because it’s so difficult to hold a conversation with someone shouting at your head through an inadequate intercom system.  I always acknowledge my customers though, and as a cab rider myself I feel aggrieved if the driver doesn’t acknowledge me.  I don’t need a chat, just a smile and a hello.

I think we need to play up the human contact.  I certainly don’t want to come over as a grumpy old man – and you have to admit, there are one or two in London.  So, this week I’m launching a personal initiative to be extra friendly, and to even make the effort to talk.

With Uber’s London licence up for renewal, I was thinking how TfL couldn’t possibly refuse to renew it, as they’d be making many thousands of drivers unemployed (or is that self-unemployed?).  But should their cars become driver-less, those same drivers will be on the scrap heap.  By this reckoning, so would we.  It won’t happen though.  It’s science fiction.  It’s a fairground ride at Madame Tussauds.

Anyway, how would your robo-cab cope if you changed your destination, or you wanted a detour to pick someone else up?  What if the cab turned up with a plastic bag over the credit card reader?  And what if you want to go somewhere that your driver-less cab didn’t want to go to?

Eugene asks how you’d argue with a robot that said “I don’t go to Brookyln”.  Our equivalent is, of course, “I don’t go south.”  Who would win the argument?  It’s worth thinking about…

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I’m Backing Britain

(original edit of my article for Taxi magazine)

By the time you read this, Our Glorious Leader, Theresa May, will have triggered Article 50.  When Mrs May presses the button, we have two years to leave the European Union.  I didn’t feel strongly either way when I voted out, and only time will tell if I made the right decision.  All I know is, all the uncertainty, and all the talking down of the country, has caused anxiety.  We just need to get on with it and go forward with a bit of confidence.

I didn’t think leaving the EU would be so complicated.  It didn’t bode well on day one, when David Cameron shirked his responsibility and had it away on his toes.  He didn’t expect the referendum result, nobody did; but plans should have been in place for that eventuality.  While everyone’s dithered, there have been court cases, more voting in parliament and the Lords, and threats from the EU that they’re going to give us a tough divorce (well, they have to do that to deter other countries from leaving).  And now the Scottish Nationalists are trying to distract proceedings and split the United Kingdom at a time when we should all be pulling together.  Finally though, The Queen gave her assent, and it looks like it’s going to happen.  Sadly, modern royals have little to do with the day to day running of the country.  Centuries ago, the king or queen dictated everything, but all they get to do now is put a rubber stamp down where they’re told to by some public school upstart.  I’d like to see the Queen given more powers, not less.  Maybe let her chop a few heads off like in the good old days.  They could start with Nicola Sturgeon.  Anyway, I digress.

I’m not sure why negotiations are expected to last two years.  I don’t understand all the talk about hard-boiled Brexit, Full English Brexit, and semi-skimmed Brexit.  The referendum question was binary: in or out.  When I voted out, I assumed we just pulled out and went our own way.  This scenario was known as Hard Brexit after the referendum, and became something the detractors told us they never meant.  I thought we’d just cancel the direct debit and unsubscribe from the newsletter.  In the coming months we could decide which EU laws to keep and which ones to dump.  Once we’d found our feet, we could maybe send out the Queen’s Navy to warn off Spanish trawlers, and any other Johnny European who wants to try it on.

In the days leading up to the triggering of Article 50, the Chancellor of the Exchequer reversed his budget plan to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed.  The original move gave the wrong signal.  At a time when Britain was preparing to go it alone, it would’ve been more positive to provide support to entrepreneurs and small business people.  Big business generally wanted us to stay in the EU.  Of course they did; they need cheap labour to exploit through the EU.  While they pay their staff peanuts on zero-hours contracts, or on sham self-employed arrangements, they can make deals with the taxman.  Their workers can then make deals with the Benefits Agency to top up their meagre earning with tax credits.  International big business is essential of course, but we also need to support grass roots growth.  We rely too much on foreign investment, and not enough in the skills and flair of our own people.

People say importing and exporting will cost us more.  I don’t see why:  if the EU imposes trade tariffs on us, we’ll do the same.  We’re importing too much anyway.  We should be buying domestically as much as possible.  With the big stuff, I find it shameful the police are driving around in foreign cars.  I’m not sure where the steel comes from to supply the huge Crossrail project, but I suspect much of it is foreign too.  This is where we need to start.  I’m not sure how British our cabs really are, but there’s not a lot we can do about that anyway.

On the everyday shopping list, if we insist on summer fruits in the winter, it’s right we pay through the nose to have produce in from sunnier climes.  Why not just go without strawberries until the British ones are available?  Switch to something else for a while.  Most of my beer is British, and I only buy foreign wine because the excellent wines that are produced in England aren’t available in my local shops.  In fairness, they’re a bit pricy too.  Maybe if more people demanded it, more would be produced, and prices would come down.  New Zealand isn’t in the EU, so I can live with that.

It’ll be several years before we know who was right or wrong on the EU debate.  There’s no point moaning about it, or casting blame.  We need to start looking forward.  There are sure to be new opportunities we haven’t yet thought of.  Who knows how we’ll stand with the USA or China in the future.  We should forge closer ties with the Commonwealth.

Let’s start now:  stop talking the country down, and think positive.  Let big business take care of itself, and support local our artisans – yes, like your local taxi drivers:  each one an individual British business person.  Eat and drink as British as possible – and preferably in British measures such as pints. Wetherspoons supported Brexit, and that’s where I’m going now.  Over a foaming tankard of British ale I’m proudly able to say that I drink for England.

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More About Uber…

(original edit of my article for Taxi magazine).

Know Your Enemy

In order to combat Uber, we first need to understand why people use them.  After talking to friends about their transport use recently, I came away with a better understanding of the appeal of our competitors.

My research was undertaken at the Upminster TapRoom on a Saturday evening.  In the streets outside there was a sea of yellow lights.  The phrase: “It’s like Piccadilly Circus”, was apt.  This is a suburban yellow badge area, but where many green badge drivers also live.  Judging by the high number of empty cabs, it appeared to be an area where the cab trade are finding it hard going.

The two friends I spoke to admire the taxi trade, but more often than not, use Uber to get around.  My Upminster friend can clearly find a cab straight away, so there’s no problem with supply.  The only issue is cost when he needs to take a longer than average journey.  He spoke of wanting to get home one night from Liverpool Street.  He took an Uber as it only cost £30.  He asked how much it would’ve cost in my cab.  I said at least £70, but thinking about it later, it would be considerably more than that.  How can they do it that cheaply?  It must take the best part of an hour to get there; and when you factor in returning empty to the City, you’re talking £15 an hour.  When Uber have taken their commission, it doesn’t leave the driver with much.

We all know drivers are lured in with ludicrous claims of high earnings.  Driver dissatisfaction in the private hire sector has been well publicised, but Uber still manage to offer up an impressive brigade of drivers.  Uber pride themselves on supplying car within three minutes, and my friend confirms they turn up quickly.

It all works by over-supply.   It doesn’t matter to Uber if they have thousands of drivers parked up doing nothing.  It only affects the drivers.  The customer wants a car within three minutes, and Uber can arrange it.  Driver turnover is high, with new arrivals coming to take the place of those who have left disillusioned.  There’s always someone there to drive you to Essex for a pittance.

London is saturated by private hire.  I’ve heard colleagues complain there are too many taxis too.  But the number of taxi licences has hardly gone up in several decades.  There aren’t too many cabs, it’s that the drivers are staying out longer to make their money up, or are working extra days (weekend work has plummeted over the last year or two).  Taxi numbers are only kept down because of The Knowledge.   Imagine if it was as easy to get a taxi licence as a private hire licence.  If we over-supplied there would be a public enquiry.  Imagine the rank space we’d need if our numbers were going up by several hundred every week like the minis.  Never mind the unofficial Paddington rank starting at the Metropole; cabs would be queuing from Marble Arch.  The public don’t notice the mini-cabs parked up, or circuiting around.  London private hire cars don’t display a PH plate:  they display a virtually unreadable licence sticker, further disguised by the tinted windows that taxis aren’t allowed to have.

The over- supply of PH licences means Uber can cover all of Central London, the suburbs, the airports, and any other town they fancy – current hotspots for London licensed Uber seem to be Southend and Brighton.  Not every booked Uber car will turn up, and not every driver will know where they’re going.  The driver might be funny about guide dogs, or gays; or he might throw you out if you criticise his choice of route (or his sat nav’s).  Thirty quid all the way to Upminster though  – the customer will take the risk and pocket a sizeable saving!

I reminded my friend that many of our drivers now use hailing apps, and he could book a taxi the same way as an Uber car.  He knows that, but says it’s not that well publicised.

People now know about Uber’s tax avoidance.  They know their drivers are being exploited.  They have heard the term Uberisation, used to describe the gig economy, zero hours contracts, and the sham of self-employed status.  We queue for work on actual ranks, but things are even worse on the virtual rank that the PH and zero-hours contractors are on.

The thing is, the bottom line is all that matters to many people.  I’m no better.  I use companies that dodge UK tax and treat their employees – or self-employed “partners” – abominably.  I know I shouldn’t; but the price, convenience, and delivery times, overrides my conscience.

Ever since private hire started, the two services have appealed to a different clientele.  Some people only use a mini-cab, some only use a taxi.  There’s a floating middle, who use both.  We’ll probably never win the custom of those who just look at the bottom line, but we could win over the middle ground.  In the years when things were better we lost some of the middle ground while chasing the top end.  The only way we can compete now is to appeal to everyone.  We now all take credit cards, and our apps are getting known.  We must provide a quality service at all times.  We need to consider fixed price fares on occasions.  A century or so ago, we appealed to the gentry because a gentleman could get into our cabs without taking his top hat off.  In order to wear the trousers, we have to remember that gentlemen no longer wear top hats.


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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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Meet the New Boss

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Meet the New Boss

I was surprised by the recent Employment Tribunal ruling that Uber drivers aren’t self-employed mini-cab drivers, but employees of a foreign tech company.

As expected, Uber have vowed to appeal, so the champagne is still on hold; but if the judgment stands, it’s a welcome announcement for us as their business model goes out the window and it puts the Uber organisation in disarray.  Uber’s “Partners” will become employees and will start to enjoy rights that they’ve hitherto only dreamt about.  As far as I understand it, these new employees will now be entitled to a minimum wage, and Uber will have to sort out income tax and national insurance for their new employees.  They’ll have to pay holiday and sick pay, maternity and paternity leave, pensions, and all the other benefits that employees enjoy under law.  This will cost Uber a lot of time, effort, and money.

The Uber drivers who brought the case should’ve have been more careful for what they wished for.  Being an employee gives you a degree of security, but it comes at a price.  When we start driving a taxi as a self-employed trader we need to put money away for our six-monthly tax bill.  We don’t pay a lot of tax because our running costs are offset against our earnings.  We pay little National Insurance.  We should put money away for holidays, sick days, and a pension, but it’s optional:  if we have a lean Kipper Season we can defer it.  No chance of doing that when your wages are deducted automatically.  Our main concern is keeping the cab on the road.  Hopefully, we make a profit, and all our other expenses are taken care of.  When I became employed as a Knowledge Examiner I was shocked at how much I was deducted:  several hundred pounds of tax and National Insurance every month!  It was nice to be in a pension scheme, but that was another £100-plus every month.  Every job that Uber drivers do will be logged and deductions will be made accordingly.  They might reflect that they were better off when they were self-employed.  There isn’t really any extra security being an employee, as an employee can be dismissed within two years and with no reason given.  I’d suggest that only a minority of Uber drivers stay longer than two years anyway.  Employees will be entitled to a minimum wage, but this won’t be enough to live on.  If not enough work is offered and accepted, drivers will be in a sticky situation.  Particularly if you are renting a car or buying one on finance.  As far as I know, you can’t claim vehicle costs unless you are self-employed.

Going further, if Uber drivers become employees, could their bosses force them to sign contracts stipulating hours of work?  Will some drivers be on the nine-to-five with an hour for lunch, while others are on unsociable hours, including weekends and bank holidays?  Some drivers could be allocated too few hours, some too many.  Taking time off might not be so easy – maybe the boss will need to consult the rota first.  They’ll probably have to work a month before seeing their first pay packet.  The main benefit of being a private hire driver is the flexibility of being your own boss, but that flexibility has now been signed away.  Think how we’d take to having a boss to answer to, and being told when to work.

Uber will now be responsible for their drivers’ conduct.  When drivers are complained about it won’t be enough to disassociate themselves with the claim that Uber are a tech company and have nothing to do with the person driving the car brokered through their App.

Fares are sure to rise, making Uber less attractive.  At the same time, word is getting around that all London taxis now accept contactless credit cards, and that many of us are also bookable through apps and radio circuits – as many of us have been for years.

Things are getting tough for Uber.  They cleverly found a loophole in centuries-old legislation and caught our licensing body napping.  They were initially seen as progressive, and feted by celebrities who wanted to align themselves with something new and exciting.  They were seen as the People’s Cab, but bad publicity has caught up with them.  People are now asking whether their aggressive way of doing things is something they should endorse.  They’re suffering attacks from both left and right wing groups, and they’re fighting a war on too many fronts.

Driver morale is low, and I believe it will get lower still.  A report by the United Private Hire Drivers speaks of exploitation, with drivers working 90 hours a week just to make ends meet.  The group say things won’t get better while TfL continue to flood London with licences:  111,000 and rising.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Uber’s licence is up for renewal next year.  They see London as a honey pot, but their feet are getting stuck right now.  That’s sweet.


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