I drove a black cab once. I lasted four days. And it wasn’t even real, by the way. I was doing it for a television programme named Call Me a Cabbie — a nice change from some of the other things people call me. But it was long enough, and real enough, to leave a very deep respect for the people who embody this unique, defining institution of London.
For all our economic power, we have lost some of the civic glories we took pride in as Londoners. However unfairly, not many people would say our police are wonderful any more. Few would call the Tube a world leader. Our streets are filled with shops and vehicles that could be anywhere.
Now London could lose one more thing that makes it different, special and civilised: the world’s best taxis. Thanks largely to Uber, London cab-driving risks becoming an entry-level job for the inexperienced, the unskilled, even the frankly sometimes dangerous.
Researching my new report on the cab trade for the Capital City Foundation, part of the Policy Exchange think-tank, we discovered a huge rise in cab-related casualties over the period Uber has been operating — much more than due simply to the rising number of cabs. We looked at a year’s reported incidents — confrontations with passengers, sex attacks, risky driving and crashes. In that year there were eight times more reported incidents involving Uber drivers than black-cab drivers.
There’s a big place for Uber in London. It has expanded the market and brought taxis within more people’s reach. Even if we could get rid of it — and we can’t — that is not what Londoners want.
Yet as well as benefits, Uber brings costs — and the costs are felt by all Londoners, most of whom seldom or never use any kind of cab. Alongside the rise in accidents, congestion is up. In 2013, Transport for London says, only one in every 100 vehicles entering the congestion charge zone was a minicab. By last year it was one in 11.
We’ve even subsidised the company from our own pockets. In 2013 and 2014 combined, Uber paid just £29,000 in UK tax. For a business dependent on roads funded by the UK taxpayer, that is totally indefensible.
And if black cabs go out of business, London’s bus network is probably the next project: Uber is already starting to target bus operators in some American cities, running shared vehicles on fixed routes. Uber wants to dominate all city transport: the clue, my friends, is in the name.
But our report also has tough home truths for cabbies. They must out-compete Uber, not waste time demanding that the Mayor turns back the clock. Uber does some things better than them, and they need to match it. It’s not really about cutting fares. London has had a two-tier cab service — black cabs and cheaper minicabs — for decades. Many customers will still pay a premium for the black cabs, if it isn’t too high.
Yes, the black cabs’ night rate — up to 60 per cent more than during the day — is suicidal. It should, we recommend, be scrapped. But for typical black-cab journeys, short trips in the daytime, fares aren’t actually that much more than Uber’s.
What Uber has brought, and the black cab doesn’t always match, is predictability and convenience. Uber customers told us they liked knowing when their ride would arrive. They liked not having to wait in the street. They liked knowing, within a fairly narrow range, what their fare would be. And they liked that no cash changed hands.
The black cabs could do all this every bit as well. They just don’t. A third of them use no apps at all. The rest are split between a confusing mixture of online platforms, the largest covering less than half the fleet.
So for the black cabbies, we propose a deal. The Mayor should slow the proliferation of minicabs by making them pay the congestion charge. He should require ride-sharing operators to limit their drivers to a 12-hour day (as Uber already has done, voluntarily, in New York but refuses to do here). And he should make Uber pay for the roads it depends on.
He can do this, it turns out, under an obscure law, the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, which allows him to impose “such conditions as may think fit” for renewing a minicab operator’s licence. Uber’s licence expires next May, giving Sadiq Khan real leverage if he wants to use it.
In return, the cabbies must change, with a universal Uber-like black-taxi app in which all must take part. They could still take street hails and cash fares — but an app would give them more ways of finding customers than anyone else on the road. There should be more fixed fares, including from Heathrow, where the ride into town can cost anything from £46 to £100. If I didn’t know whether a shirt was going to cost me £46 or £100 until after I bought it, I wouldn’t go to the shop. And the loaded formula used to calculate cab fare changes must end. This year it cost passengers a 1.6 per cent increase, even as the price of petrol fell 15 per cent.
Some foolish people want to water down the Knowledge, or let black cabbies use any old car. But charging a premium fare for a non-premium service would be disastrous. The Knowledge (still quicker than GPS every time it’s tested) is what makes black cabbies professional; without it, there is no cab trade.
If the cabbies combined Uber’s strengths with theirs, they truly would be unbeatable. But getting change is hard. There’s an ultra-conservative minority who are against everything, except blocking the streets and honking their horns. Even making all cabbies accept credit cards — which finally happens this month — has taken years. But the trade hasn’t got years any more, and most cabbies know that.
This article first appeared in the Evening Standard