Tag Archives: Uber

Ubermarket Sweep

(Article written for Taxi magazine. The editor suggested I needed to lie down, though I think it’s quite jolly in places).

Ubermarket Sweep

You’ve probably noticed people riding around on Uber delivery bikes. Our favourite app-based technology company have opened a new front in the transport war and are taking on courier companies like Deliveroo. That’s all we need: more mirror-worrying scooters with huge boxes scraping down the cycle lane. A perfect complement to their cars holding you up by picking up passengers in the middle of the road and doing a three-point turn.
UberEats collect food from restaurants that don’t provide a delivery service and deliver it to your home or office. Cyclists and motorcyclists are drawn in with a £100 sign-on payment, and are apparently paid an equivalent of £10 per hour. Of course, Uber’s mini-cab drivers were similarly tempted in by golden hellos, but the gold turned to rust when their earnings plummeted. Ah well, it’s their choice.
Uber also experimented with a grocery service in Washington DC. They would deliver household essentials to your door at a competitive price and with no delivery charge. Amazon started a same-day “fresh produce and groceries” delivery service in California and Seattle, and have recently launched the service in England, supplying meat, fish, dairy products, and many other items. Sadly, when I tapped my Bedfordshire postcode in I learned that I’d have to go without my brace of pheasant today, as delivery is currently only available in certain postcodes in North and East London (Hipsters in other words. Yes, craft beer is also available).
This is in addition to the existing supermarket deliveries. We’re now living in a world where people expect everything to be delivered, and delivered promptly. I get to see many towns and cities on my travels, and I’ve watched our High Streets decline as the computer and smart phone has replaced the shopping experience. Big, established, names from my childhood, have gone: Woolworths and C&A closed years’ ago; to be recently been joined by BHS – a shop sold for £1, then valued at nothing.
People like Boris said people needed choice, and to object to Uber was to object to progress – never mind that private hire and taxi trades are distinct services, and ours is much more stringently regulated. You were anti-competition if you spoke up against an unfair playing field on which Uber played. When Uber, Amazon, and the rest, take over our High Streets and our few remaining greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers close; can we then say it’s because they were anti-progress and resistant to change?
Thankfully, the debate over cab drivers taking credit cards is now virtually redundant. Those drivers who resisted were labelled luddites Luddite if you were resistant to accepting cards. They were dinosaurs sleepwalking into their own extinction. I’d always countered that you’d only use cards to pay for certain items, and that you wouldn’t use one to pay for a pound of apples or a newspaper. I’m now thinking that maybe people do. People are certainly encouraged to pay for their coffee by card at certain places.
Presumably I’m a dinosaur if I want to conserve the physical shopping experience of walking down to the shops, to browse, touch and physically compare items – and to check the sell by dates on fresh produce.
The whole delivery thing has a sinister side. The independent businesses that I support would be hounded by the HMRC should they get their tax returns wrong, yet companies delivering stuff may well be brokering deals to discount their tax bills, or be paying their tax abroad. Are you against competition and progress if you don’t try to make deals to pay less tax?
Do the self-employed “partners” working on behalf of these delivery companies actually earn enough, or are they encouraged to claim tax credits? Are their scooters insured for business use?
Maybe Uber have gone as far as they can go with taxis in London, and that’s why they’ve started on couriers. The businesses that don’t take part in any of these delivery schemes will risk being eaten away. I would fully expect Uber and other companies to set up their own retail businesses, if they haven’t already – these things usually start off in the USA. They’ve waged war on taxi drivers, traditional private hire, couriers; and now butchers, fish mongers and greengrocers are at risk. They’re trying to take over the world! The Government, TfL, businesses, and those people who can’t be bothered to do their own shopping, are all letting it happen. They say it’s in the name of progress. Maybe it is. What do I know? I’m just a dinosaur.

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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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Uber Threaten Buses

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Busman’s Holiday
At this year’s UK Bus Summit, TfL Managing Director of Surface Transport, Leon Daniels, warned that London’s buses are under threat by Uber. I found the idea unlikely at first, but the dynamic of transport is certainly changing. Could low mini-cab fares really herald the decline of the bus?
What’s certain is a race to the bottom between private hire operators, and with buses being the cheapest form of transport in London, they could prove to be the most vulnerable should private hire fares become cheaper. Transport users in London are familiar with the long line of red on Regent Street and Oxford Street, and they know they’re in for a long journey should they choose the bus option.
Transport users know a taxi can be an expensive option, but we’re popular because we offer a private door-to-door service, and we’re quicker than the buses. Regular customers also know we are increasingly prone to get stuck in traffic though, and if we get caught in heavy traffic, a £15 fare can easily become £20 or £25, or even £30. And there’s no definitive rush hour; we can get stuck in traffic at any part of the day – and on any day too; weekends aren’t exempt.
Tourists like to ride in a cab, and we’re useful to people with luggage using train stations. Taxis also serve the huge Taxicard account for customers with limited mobility, subsidised by the London boroughs. Apart from that, we’re largely used by those with a bit of money. Not so well off people might use us for a quick dash to Euston or Waterloo, but it’s a gamble. People are wary because of the possible cost implications.
Private hire gained a measure of respectability when they became officially licensed, and the smart corporate image of some of the companies has attracted higher-earning individuals, as well as corporate account customers. Uber’s use of the app. is nothing new, but few people seem to be aware that new technology is available to book a taxi. Computer dispatch and phone applications have been used by the London taxi trade since they first became available. There’s some good publicity coming out to publicise alternative ways to hail a taxi, and it’s positive that all taxis will be known to process credit cards from October.
Although trade is still depressed, I’m confident that our position will strengthen. Established private hire companies are surely having it harder than us, and if Uber cuts its fares, other private hire companies will have to follow or risk going to the wall. I can see private hire being in the hands of just a few mega-companies before long. How low can the fares go? Low enough to challenge the buses?
Mr Daniels seems to think so, when he reminded the busmen that their opposition offer a personal, door to door service, and that private hire can work out cheaper than the bus if there are more than one of you travelling. The taxi trade has had advertising campaigns pointing out that any cab fare applies to the whole vehicle: five or six passengers. Not everyone considers this, so it’s useful to point it out. If there are a few of you, taking a taxi to Heathrow is cheaper than taking a train, particularly when you have to get yourself to Paddington first. Even a cab ride to Gatwick, Luton, or Stansted, can be cost effective.
So what if private hire targeted the buses and took more work from them? What if the bus companies didn’t find it economical to run to current timetables and cut some buses? Waiting times between buses would increase, and private hire (and taxis) would become more attractive. Passengers fed up of waiting for a bus will increasingly reach for their mobile to book an Uber, or flag down a passing taxi. Yes, what benefits Uber could benefit taxis too. Road congestion would be lessened on many routes, benefitting everybody. The reduced bus fleet will cause less congestion, and minis and taxis will be moving around faster. Imagine no more queuing to get around Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly Circus! The cleaner air will also keep everyone happy.
Uber Alles
Through their publicity machine, everyone has heard of Uber. Everyone knows they can download their app. and have a car arrive after a few minutes. It’s also a global brand, so there’s a certain element of trust. If successful, they could challenge the Heathrow and Gatwick Express trains, and maybe have a pop at the Oxford Tube too for good measure. With their power, will Uber get permission to take Oyster cards? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Their fares will surely have to get even lower though. I don’t think drivers’ disputes over Uber’s commission will bother customers so much. The fact is that people just want a cheap service, and Uber, and private hire generally, is seen as a relatively inexpensive option.
But they are a fashionable brand, and fashions come and go. As a fashionable brand, Uber are reliant on a sympathetic media to promote them, and also on celebrity endorsement. Publicity over Uber’s tax arrangements make people with a conscience think twice; as well as reports on some drivers’ criminal activities, insurance irregularities, and unorthodox route planning. Should the glamour wear off, they haven’t the history or tradition to sustain a fickle London public’s interest. The tide could turn against them. If they do establish themselves as a serious challenge to the buses they might be tempted to put up fares again, and to increase their surge pricing periods. We could all go back to square one again. Then what? Who knows!
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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British Steel

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

 

British Steel (original title)

I’m sure many of you have been following the story of the British steel industry with sadness.  This once proud industry is struggling to survive because it cannot compete with a flood of cheap state-subsidised steel from China, high export tariffs, high energy costs, and green taxes.  While most people are sad to see long-established industries declining, some unfairly characterise the situation as a struggle between free market progress and industries stuck in the past.

I’m starting to think the cab trade is in a similar position.  As an analogy, we are the Port Talbot steel workers struggling to compete with foreign companies on an uneven playing field.  It’s not a level playing field when less stringent conditions abroad allow the domestic product to be undercut.  Foreign suppliers don’t operate under the strict health and safety laws conditions that domestic industries do:  the factories are less safe, the workers less protected; and I’d be surprised if the goods were transported by vehicles that would pass a British MOT.

There’s also an almost unlimited supply of labour.  In private hire there’s a revolving door, through which drivers can be recruited both domestically and from abroad.  Modern-day slave masters tempt people in with unrealistic claims of high earnings, and encourage them to top up their money with benefits.  Not many private hire drivers stay around for long when they realise they’re being exploited, and when they leave the trade, they are quickly replaced by new drivers operating under TfL’s open door licensing policy.

In the cab trade, if a driver can’t make his business work and drops out, there is no-one to take his place.  On the face of it, that means more work for the rest of us; but as a trade we’re diminished.  With fewer of us, we have less power.  The number of taxis hasn’t gone up much in the last few decades, but the number of private hire vehicles has multiplied – and continues to do so by several hundred every week.  The taxi and private hire industries have co-existed side by side for a long time now.  Traditional private hire are also threatened by foreign app-based providers, and the two industries often find themselves in agreement.  Many established private hire companies support the clarification and enforcement of rules, as well as the capping of numbers.  TfL say they can’t legally suspend private hire licensing, yet they suspended issuing taxi licences in certain suburban sectors a few years’ ago.

Foreign app-based private hire operators do nothing for this country when most of their tax is paid abroad, and some of its drivers are claiming benefits.  I was bored by the media’s fascination with Mr Cameron’s investments and tax affairs, but it’s interesting how he seems to support a company that makes a lot of money in this country while avoiding paying tax here.  Many drivers are working long hours at subsistence levels, and it does nobody any good.  It’s understandable that customers go for the cheapest option, but in this case it’s only cheap because profits go to a tax-dodging company who pays its drivers a pittance.  I believe the public are becoming wiser to their operations now.  There have been well-publicised instances of criminal activity by app-based private hire drivers, and there is always doubt over insurance.  Many people have been enraged by surge pricing and have had money taken from their credit cards without their knowledge.  Some of the drivers’ route planning has been the stuff of legend.

The steel industry seems to have had inadequate protection from the government, and the cab trade enjoys little protection from our licensing body.  A Britain without a steel industry is unthinkable.  A London without a cab industry is also unthinkable.  As I write, the future of steel is being discussed on the world stage.  The cab trade could be improved locally, here in London.  Plying for hire needs clarifying and enforcing, private hire licensing needs to be suspended, and we need a serious look at the road systems that are slowing down the traffic and killing people with the resulting pollution.  One hope is that a sensible, fair-minded, mayor could bring in positive changes and re-form taxi and private hire licensing.  Someone certainly needs to bring in some British steel.

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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Uber Article (Guardian)

If you only read one cab-related article this year, make it this one.  I normally only post my own writings as other bloggers cover this sort of journalism better than I.  It describes how Uber got started, then aimed to take over existing taxi trades around the world – seeing London’s highly regulated trade as the big prize.  It’s fascinating reading, though also scary for us cab drivers. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/27/how-uber-conquered-london

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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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Foreign Desk

(This is a piece I wrote based on an earlier blog.  It wasn’t published as a magazine article, and is rather out of date now)

Tunisia

Following acts of terrorism we’re advised to stay away from certain Middle East and North African countries.  Tunisia now heads the list of countries that risk having their economies decimated with the loss of their tourism industries.  I say well done to the 10,000 British holidaymakers who stayed on to complete their holidays in Tunisia (around 50%).

At one time, I had a bit of a reputation as a Trouble Tourist as many of my holidays were spent in the Middle East and North Africa.  Sadly, if I were Muslim, I’d probably be suspected of visiting terrorist training camps.  I enjoyed a holiday in Tunisia some years’ ago, and particularly liked Sousse, the town where gunmen recently massacred thirty-eight people.  Had I been out there at the time, I would have defiantly seen out my holiday, and shown solidarity with the local people.  Terrorists aim to produce terror.  If people don’t give in and carry on as normal, the terrorists lose.  Remember the defiance of the French people back in January:  “Je Suis Charlie”?  More people than ever bought the Charlie Hebdo magazine.  The terrorists lost.

It’s said that more attacks could take place in Tunisia.  True, but more attacks are likely to follow elsewhere too, possibly including the UK.  We’ve certainly had our share of terrorist outrages over my lifetime.  Even before I was born, our parents and grandparents still got on with life despite the Luftwaffe bombing our cities.  The IRA were bombing British cities well before I started work in London in 1978.  When I became a cab driver in the eighties, my work was often disrupted when streets were closed because of bomb threats.  Terrorist outrages continued to happen around Britain on a lesser scale ever since, but we didn’t give in to terrorism.  We got on with life.  When fifty-two people were murdered in London ten years’ ago, London didn’t come to a standstill.  As far as I know, foreign embassies have not advised their citizens to avoid the UK.

The threats aren’t necessary stronger in Muslim countries.  I’ve had more problems in my own country.  My wallet was lifted on a crowded Istanbul tram within minutes of my arrival, but problems have usually been of minor rip-offs rather than overt thieving or violence.  Let’s be honest, this isn’t the safest country to live in.  Violent, well-organised gangs of thieves are targeting London and other cities twenty-four hours.  The crime rate is often lower in the countries that people are now scared of going to.   Personally, I’d take my chances in West Beirut or East Jerusalem over any British town centre on a Saturday night.

Greece

I’ve also had nice holidays in Corfu and Rhodes, so I’m sorry to hear of the problems Greece is facing.  Not sure who decided to let them into the European Union though.  I understand paying tax was pretty much regarded as optional, and that workers in occupations such as hairdressing could retire on a full pension aged fifty (I’m not sure what age Greek taxi drivers retire at).  Had I moved to Greece to become a Careers Adviser rather than Northampton, I could have retired by now.  I could be sat on a beach counting my nest egg of unpaid tax.  Maybe we shouldn’t be complacent at our own country’s lax policies though:  I was shocked to read that self-employed Uber drivers can claim tax credits!

France

Talking of whom…  Our friends across the channel recently took to the streets to protest against Uber.  Cars were overturned, Police were injured, and tyres were set on fire during the protests.  Unbelievably, Uber in Europe supply a ride sharing service employing – sorry, providing – drivers without either a taxi or a private hire licence.  Disgruntled French ferry workers have also had issues.  Their strike forced the closure of Calais port, leaving drivers to queue in the sweltering heat for days in their lorries in Kent.  This was on the hottest summer day for many years.  Both demos involved setting fire to anything that got in their way.  Say what you like about them, the French know how to throw a party.

A friend and I were wondering whether winning the Battle of Waterloo was necessarily a good thing.  Had the French won we might be all working a thirty-seven hour week, and enjoying several extra days per year in strike days. I’ll gloss over the idea of snails, but we could eat as many frogs’ legs and as many rare steaks as you can shovel at us.  We wouldn’t have had to wait two-hundred years for a decent cup of coffee either.  We could then round off the evening with setting stuff on fire over a steaming café au lait.

No, no need to be scared of foreign countries, nor foreign food.  I’d just be careful which cab company you get to drive you home.

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The Only Labour Voter in Leighton Buzzard South

On Thursday I did something I haven’t done in about 30 years:  I voted Labour.  I was among only 10,000 to vote Labour in my constituency, and South-West Bedfordshire remained solid Conservative.  Nationally, they might have made it were not for those pesky Scots. I never liked that Nicola Sturgeon; always thought there was something fishy about her.

Unlike those soap-dodgers creating havoc in London today, I am sanguine about the result. Just because you didn’t vote Conservative, it doesn’t mean you can stop the traffic with your stupid demos.  Be thankful you have the ability to vote freely (this is the bit where I’d normally suggest moving to Russia, but I won’t, because I’m now a left-leaning Labour supporter. I’d better not talk about hanging & flogging now either, eh).

*Liable to change next time.  I’m definitely a floating voter, and have voted for all three major parties in my time.

Suppose we’d better batten down the hatches and prepare for a few more years of misery.  Without the Liberals to temper their ideas, the Tories are surely going to run riot with their cuts and privatisation.  Many people voted Conservative believing that the improving economy will eventually show itself in their wage packets.  I dearly hope they’re right.

We London cab drivers had a zero per cent meter rise this year (0.7% last year), No-one in the trade is complaining. Higher fares won’t help us, or anybody else.  Getting rid of pedicabs and Uber would be a start, if the powers that be had any balls. We just have to take the pain with everybody else. Mayor Boris isn’t a popular bloke as far as the cab trade are concerned. Like his predecessor, “Red” Ken Livingstone, largely because of his madcap traffic schemes.  Many commentators think he could be the next Prime Minister.  Gawd help us.

Ps.  I picked up Education Minister, Nicky Morgan, last year.  Seemed a nice lady.

Pps.  What next for Clegg, Millipede and Farage?  I hear it suggested they might produce a new version of Top Gear.

Pip Pip.

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Fit & Proper?

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

As reported in the last issue of Taxi, TfL are advertising Uber on the Taxis & Minicabs section of their website. Could the LTDA advertise on the TfL website too? Or Addison Lee? Is it just a matter of paying so much money that TfL can’t resist?
It seems inappropriate for our licensing authority to use advertising for this purpose. Putting aside the fact that Uber and their drivers are subject to legal action in London and around the world, it seems inappropriate for our licensing authority to take advertising of this nature. It’s like the NHS promoting individual doctors or medical practices, and those with the most money getting a mention.
It all leaves a nasty taste in the mouth at a time where the taxi trade is being undermined by a virtual operator that’s being chased around the world with lawsuits. If I went over to Paris and tried to operate my cab business I’m sure the Parisian equivalent of TfL would say “Non.” And quite rightly so. Following a stiff warning letter or two, I’d fully expect an invitation to discuss the matter with m’learned friends in a court of law, and a single ticket back to St Pancras International. If I brazened it out and decided to continue I wouldn’t expect TfL to renew my licence should I ever return. I would have shown contempt for the laws of the land and would not be deemed a fit and proper person. Uber continue to operate in the European cities they have been banned in, showing total disregard for the laws of those countries. And they’re still considered worthy of an operator’s licence in London.
Maybe the LTDA and Addison Lee do have adverts on the TfL website. I didn’t get that far in my research as I was so mesmerised by Uber’s advert claiming that I could earn £1200 per week as a driver. If I could make £1200 as a day driver I’d be a happy man, so I ticked the information box to find out more. The advert says I need to be a current taxi driver “certified and licensed by the city”, and my vehicle needs to be “a commercial taxi Vehicle.” I easily satisfy Uber’s stringent specifications so wanted to know how to claim my £1200 per week. Unfortunately there were no further details. I would have had to leave my contact details for someone to get back to me. This was as far as I was prepared to venture into the world of Uber so I left it there.
I imagine I’d have to work every hour God sends in order to pull in that kind of money. Scare stories concerning tachographs in cabs were prevalent a few years’ ago. Maybe it’s time to look again at a restriction driving hours? I’m just saying…
Meanwhile, Uber have recently been fined $128,000 by a French court for falsely marketing its car-pooling service, and its drivers have been warned that they face criminal conviction. That’s not a lot of money, but it might put its drivers off if they think they might attract criminal convictions. India are also on their case over tax. The state of Nevada has also been added to the growing list of places banning Uber. They’ve been banned from offering their shared ride service pending a court hearing, and five drivers have been cited by regulators. They could be fined up to $10,000. A Las Vegas driver, Michael Elsner, told reporters that Uber are worth more than $18 million: “do you think the Nevada Taxicab authority is going to win? I mean, come on, come on.” Herein lies the problem; the company is too powerful. Any fines that the Las Vegas drivers receive will be reimbursed by Uber, according to Uber’s Western Region spokeswoman, Eve Behrend: “Uber vigorously defends the rights of our partner drivers and firmly stands by them when they are wrongly cited or impounded. We will cover and financial or legal costs associated with these unjust actions”. It puts Addison Lee’s promise to reimburse bus lane fines in perspective, doesn’t it?
Uber have exploited technology and have undermined the taxi – and private hire – trade worldwide. The fear is that they’ve become so powerful that no-one can stop them. Wild West Sheriffs have tried running them out of town, but they keep riding back on their shiny black steeds. If they’re worth over $18 million, that’s a lot of money. But it’s not finite. If they face expensive lawsuits and end up paying all their driver’s fines they’ll run out of cash eventually.
The most important element in this scenario is the drivers. They are also the weakest link. If the drivers start to pick up damaging criminal convictions they will lose confidence. The company will then surely fail. As for London drivers, if they get criminal convictions won’t that mean their TfL private hire licences will be revoked? Will they continue to put up with all the hassle – even for £1200 per week?

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Hailo, Uber & Changes in the London Cab Trade

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Things move slowly in the cab trade.  In 1973, Maurice Levinson’s publisher suggested that his next book reflected the changes in the cab trade over the past ten years.  Maurice was scared of the suggestion at first, as in certain respects nothing much had happened in the past three hundred years, let alone ten.

Suddenly things are happening very fast.  Technology is challenging centuries-old certainties and asking questions on how we go about our business.  The changes are coming at such an alarming rate that no-one seems to know how to react.  Recently we’ve had a lack of support from TfL, and the kerfuffle over Hailo and Uber.  This has resulted in confusion and bad feeling.

Hailo

As we speak, drivers are deleting their Hailo app and getting their logos removed.  The cab drivers who founded Hailo should have known they would lose support for applying for a private hire licence.  With work harder to find, private hire is regarded as competition more than ever.   Many drivers feel betrayed by the company’s promise to deal exclusively with taxis.  The people who saw Hailo as part of the solution, now see them as part of the problem.  

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to run any kind of taxi booking service.  Marrying customers up with drivers is probably easy enough when there are plum account jobs to dish out, but it must be impossibly frustrating and worrying when demand outstrips supply in busy periods, and when you can’t cover jobs in poorly-served areas going around the corner.

Hailo possibly saw private hire as being able to take up some of the slack.  Maybe they are just responding to corporate clients telling them that they want a choice of cab or car.  Maybe, like they say, this will attract bigger accounts and that taxis will still cover 80% of the work.  It might be too late now, but they might discover that their USP was that it only supplied taxis.

Uber:  They Shall Not Pass

Maybe Hailo merely saw how things were going and panicked?  Maybe they were spooked by Uber’s sleek advertising and bold claims:  “Better, faster and cheaper than a taxi.”  Uber’s business is also marrying up drivers with punters, but it’s all rather mysterious and anonymous, and with a sinister whiff of big business. 

We pay a lot of money to TfL to get licensed and we jump through a lot of hoops.  Cab owners go through the cab licensing procedure every year, and we chase around post offices every three years in order to renew our cab driver’s license.  TfL keep us away from their office and have as little to do with us as possible.  We don’t make big demands:  just a few appropriately-sited ranks, and protection from unregulated operators and drivers.  We expect TfL to keep up with developments and to protect us.  The fact that Uber are essentially using meters isn’t really that important.  A smokescreen.  The fact that they should never have been licensed as an operator is the real issue.  No way are Uber an operator.  Uber’s website says they are “seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through (our) apps.”  Are they using licensed private hire drivers attached to established companies, or independents going it alone?  Either way, jobs are not going through a bona fide operator.  They are not contacted through an office or a landline.  Their drivers – whoever they are – are taking direct bookings while plying for hire in their cars.  They are a virtual mini-cab company and they need to be stopped.   

What possible interest could Google, Amazon and Goldman Sachs have in the London cab trade, apart from making a fast buck off our backs?  Their plan might work in the world’s less-regulated cities.  To drive for Uber in Paris you just need three years’ experience and personal insurance for your vehicle.  Once they crossed the Channel we would have expected TfL to put a stop to it. 

Established private hire businesses are likely to be affected by interlopers more than ours.  Concerned private hire drivers voiced their opinions on LBC radio last month, and I agreed with every word the guest private hire spokesman said.  Interestingly, this is possibly the first time ever that private hire agree with us – history in the making!

Selling Ourselves Short

I can understand and respect drivers wanting no contact with companies with private hire involvement.  The difference in Hailo’s case is that the drivers saw Hailo as 100% on their side when they joined.  They thought they’d be reclaiming the streets and taking work from private hire.  Instead, they will be sharing work with them.  It’ll be interesting to see if Get Taxi stick to their guns.  They’ve been canvassing hard for support lately and must have gained some ex-Hailo drivers.

Radio circuits use private hire too.  When I joined ComCab I had to make a business decision, and weigh up whether it was worthwhile.  None of the circuits or app providers are charities.  They are all doing it to make money.  Who needs who the most is debatable, but they all take a piece of us.  They either charge a subscription fee, take a cut of the fare, or make deals with account holders to provide cut price rides and free waiting time.  Often all three.  If I’m having a slow day I might take an £18 job from the City to Paddington knowing that there’s likely to be £24 on the meter.  I weigh it up at the time and make the decision.  We do the same job on the street and we keep 100% of the fare, the old fashioned way, like Mr Levinson in 1973.  Will I get more Roaders through a circuit or working the streets?  Do we rely on ourselves and go it alone, or do we buy into a service provider?  We are not given jobs, we are sold jobs.  We all sell ourselves to some extent.  The question we need to ask is for how much?

 

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