Monday, 25 September 2017

At Risk Of Repeating Myself...

I wrote something along these lines a couple of years back and now here I am again with a distinct sense of deja vu, albeit under slightly different circumstances.

Last week Transport For London (TFL) announced it would deny the renewal of Ubers licence to continue its minicab operation in London from the end of September, on various fit and proper operator grounds. Of course Uber will attempt to overturn this via appeal but for now it's caused all manner of consternation among the Uberati in the city and beyond.

I'm not here to argue with those people, after all, as a Licensed London Taxi driver (aka 'black cab driver' when it comes to this debate) I'd be dismissed as biased anyway. Which I am obviously, however, I have bitten my lip and kept well out of any spats on social media, where the battle of opinion on the matter seems to be taking place, in the main.

However, as usual in such instances, I see SO MANY ill informed and plain inaccurate comments being made about my industry all over the place that I just have to put some facts straight or at the very least, inform people of a few things to at least educate them to some extent. I don't expect for a minute it will change their outlook on the situation but it will make me feel better anyway and at least every time I see uneducated comment I can direct them to this.

So, I'm addressing the main points that it seems people have the most to shout about in this debate and hopefully this helps to put some context out there. This isn't biased ranting, anecdotal opinion or political spin, it's just plain facts, so please sit comfortably and digest.

1. "The Knowledge is outdated and isn't required now we have Satnav"

'The Knowledge', for those unfamiliar with the term, in a nutshell, is the qualification process that London cabbies embark on to attain their green badge (license). It involves learning all the streets and points of interest (POI) in London in order to pass a series of rigorous examinations to test your knowledge of these roads and points as well as your mental route planning ability around the city. It can take anywhere between 3-5 years to pass, depending on how well you perform in the regular exams.

Now, I get it, Satnav has come a long way and, yes, it can get you from A to B in the majority of cases. It won't always take you the best way, particularly in Londons congested labyrinthine road network and it doesn't have the intuition that a human brain with local knowledge has, but I accept for many situations it is fine. Having said that, it's not ideal having what is supposed to be a professional driver solely reliant on following a satnav, with all the distractions that entails.

However, the Knowledge is not just a test of your road, routing and POI knowledge, it is also a massive test of character. Who would invest so much time, effort and sacrifice to qualify as a professional in their field, only to throw away that livelihood at the drop of a hat via criminal activity. It's as good as a CRB check in my opinion. It sorts the wheat from the chaff, as it were. It verifies the dedication of a person and instills a sense of pride and respect in that person for their trade. What's wrong with that? Is having well qualified individuals who clearly care passionately about a trade a bad thing? Don't we want people to strive to be the best they can be in their chosen profession? I don't see a clamour for expensive lawyers, dentists etc to be replaced by some bloke armed with a YouTube video who will do the job for half the price. Not a perfect analogy I know but you get my point.

I wonder how many folk who demean the Knowledge as outdated and unnecessary got themselves degrees at University? I imagine if they did they feel a sense of self worth as a result, why should my qualification be any different? It took as much (perhaps even more) dedication, sacrifice and commitment.

2. "Black Cabs are afraid of Innovation and need to move with the times"

The London Taxi trade is one of the oldest  professions in London. It goes back to Oliver Cromwell. So you could be excused for thinking we are old fashioned luddites. However, our trade has embraced technology for decades. We innovated with radio circuits and now we have Apps for booking. In fact we had apps long before Uber arrived. We still do, namely Taxiapp, Mytaxi, CabApp and Gett (formerly GetTaxi). The problem is they haven't been advertised to the extent uber has and to understand why you need to understand the two models. Uber is a multi billion $ corporation and the London Taxi trade is 25000 sole traders with no financial business organism or marketing machine to promote our offering. So despite having an identical offering to Uber, not enough people knew/know about it. Our apps offer both pre book and instant bookings as well as fixed prices in many cases (for those of you terrified of the nasty old meter).

3. "Black cabs are just afraid of Competition"

No, this issue has nothing to do with competition. After all we operate in an arena where competition is rife and has been for years. We compete with private hire companies, buses, tube, rail, coaches, in fact every cab driver on the road is competition as far as I'm concerned! Of course any business is a little afraid of a competitor that may affect your ability to put food on the family table. Anyone who says otherwise is probably fibbing I would say. But when an entrant to your industry comes and threatens your livelihood on an unfair basis (and it's not just taxis saying that but the existing established legitimate PH industry who have been decimated by uber), how would you feel? So this is about level playing fields, not competition and this is discussed further on.

4. "but uber are so much cheaper than black cabs"

Does the term 'Predatory pricing' mean anything to you? Last time I looked this was illegal under competition law (look up the definition, it's where a company uses artificially reduced prices to undercut and drive the competition out of business). It's great you're all getting around town for peanuts (at the moment) but there's a wider picture here. You claim black cabs have a monopoly (more on that later) but what on earth do you think ubers raison d'etre is? Their model is to use predatory pricing to drive out competition!! Sounds like monopolist thinking to me. It's the reason Italy kicked them out and I'm surprised that more wasn't made of this aspect of their operation in London to be honest. Did you know that the fare you pay uber is around 41% of the true cost of that ride? The remainder is subsidised by venture capital investment. What do you think will happen when that runs out and/or the competition no longer exists? In what version of reality do you think this pricing is sustainable? Uber continues to lose a ton of money by operating this model, it stands to reason they're going to need to recoup this at some point, right?

5. "Black cabs are a rip off"

Well let's start off by saying that I, the cab driver, do not set my fares (as explained previously). Uber are cheaper (also for reasons explained above) I get that totally (although in many instances a black cab is actually not particularly expensive compared to some alternatives where multiple passengers are taken into account). But I'd love to offer a cheaper service if I could. When you look at the meter you think "thats expensive" but have you any idea of our costs? For the average cabbie, around 40% of that meter price goes on expenses (cab finance/rental, insurance, tax, diesel, breakdown cover, repairs, 2 MOTs per year etc), then factor in income tax, pension (I'm self employed) and the fact I'm not paid for time off or sickness (for which I also pay for expensive income protection cover in the event of serious illness), then my 'take' reduces much further. So this urban myth that cabbies are raking it in because of what you see on the meter simply isn't accurate, there's a wider picture you need to consider. We make a living but it's hard earned.

With regards to choice/price of cab (our vehicle choice is limited to two very expensive models, around £40k in price) we have NO SAY in these costs and the meter tariff is set by TFL, NOT US (a tariff that I would add is set based on costs, RPI etc and DOES NOT involve 'surging' at the drop of a hat). From 2018, thanks to the demonisation of diesel vehicles, all new cabs sold have to be 'zero emission capable' (electric or hybrid), and the only model announced thus far, taking into account finance, will cost around £70k! How on earth can the average cab driver afford that??

One last point on taxi fares, if the meter price bothers you, many of the taxi apps such as Gett and Mytaxi offer fixed price rides in certain circumstances.

6. "Black cabs are bullying Londoners and want to protect their monopoly"

This monopoly argument is so funny and I hear it time and again. As I touched on earlier WE DO NOT HAVE A MONOPOLY. We operate, and have done for decades, in an arena with minicabs, buses, tubes, trains, coaches, rickshaws, bikes, in fact every cabbie is my competitor to some extent. If that's your definition of a monopoly I suggest you advance directly to your dictionary without collecting £200 for passing Go. Furthermore, there is nothing stopping anyone from entering our trade, it is open to all who wish to put in the hard work to achieve a licence. If you haven't got the stuff to do it, fair enough, but please, ENOUGH with the monopoly nonsense. If you want to talk monopolies, as I said previously, look at the Uber model with regard to their predatory pricing strategy, it is the very definition of creating a monopoly!

As for the claim that cabbies are being 'bullies', if your ability to put food on your family table was threatened illegally, I'd think less of you if you didn't fight to protect it. As long as that fight was within the law then what's wrong with having a bit of stomach eh? Should we just roll over, forget the graft and sacrifice we put in to attaining our qualification and let Uber tickle our bellies? That's not bullying, it's standing up to BEING bullied if anything.

7. "Uber losing its licence will put 40k employees out of work"

Uber have moved heaven and earth in the courts to dispute the fact their drivers are employees in order to avoid offering them basic workers rights (I'm not necessarily saying they should either, there's a valid argument on both sides on this). It's hypocrisy of the highest order that they now use this concern for their drivers now it suits them. What will happen to this concern when/if Uber finally roll out their proposed fleets of autonomous vehicles? Enough said.

There will still be demand in the marketplace to fill the vacuum that uber leaves behind so don't worry, those drivers will find work with legitimate PH companies. They're self employed after all, right?

Oh and remind me again, where was the outcry and petition to sign when the livelihoods of 25k taxi drivers was (and still is to be honest) under threat from a tax avoiding US multi billion dollar corporation? Where was the moral outrage about the multiple sexual assault cases on women attributed to Uber drivers when it was on the front page of the national papers? I must have missed those.

8. "Black cabs are  expensive because they get stuck in traffic"

Let's have a look at that eh. There has been an explosion in minicab vehicle numbers in London as a result of Ubers arrival and promises of riches to its drivers, which has even seen passengers switching to them from public transport. In 2009 there were 58k minicabs licensed in London, at last count there were almost 120k. In that same time the number of black cabs has remained virtually static at 24.5k. So is it any wonder it's becoming harder to negotiate roads with this level of unsustainable vehicular increase and the resulting added congestion.

Poor driving standards among a large number of these relatively inexperienced drivers and the resulting increase in RTAs has gone through the roof. But don't take my word for it, ask Inspector Neil Billany (head of the Metropolitan Police taxi and private hire unit) who spoke about this issue when he wrote to TFL about Ubers failures in reporting sexual assaults.

He raised his concern about the additional strain on his resources in attending these traffic incidents, resources that are paid for by our taxes ironically (considering uber contribute nothing in this respect).

9. "I've used uber and never had a problem, I feel safe, I can track the vehicle etc etc"

That's as maybe, but there have been 32 cases of sexual assault/rape in Uber vehicles investigated by police in a 12 month period. That's one every 11 days! In what other industry/business does that happen and not cause some kind of public outrage? Am I missing something here? Yes, I know about John Warboys, the appalling rapist who committed his crimes in a London taxi and is now rightfully in jail. People cite this case against the London taxi trade because that's the only one you can think of and it was widely reported because it is such a rare occurrence. But THIRTY TWO cases of sexual assault/rape in a single year? How many others went unreported I wonder, given the issues raised by Inspector Neil Billany

This surely raises questions about the vetting process and comes back to my argument about the value of The Knowledge qualification as a deterrent to opportunist, would-be sex offenders jumping in a taxi after filling in a form and handing over a cheque.

So there it is, thanks for sticking with it and I hope that's been helpful. It's written from a viewpoint of someone who has pride in and cares greatly about their trade, not just the fact it's my livelihood at stake. I've tried to stick to pure facts and not just ranting about the situation. I'm not for one minute trying to paint every London cabbie as an angel, I know there are bad apples and I'm sure some of you, particularly uber users, have experienced one at some point. But that's human nature, every trade/industry has the same, we're no different. But the overwhelming majority of us are committed to and care deeply about our profession in the same way nurses, policemen, firemen, teachers do and, like those boys and girls, we can become unpopular when we voice our concerns and frustrations. We just want a fair shake.

Finally, if you haven't had enough, here's another well written piece on this subject by someone who isn't a cab driver...

Be lucky x


  1. 1 Have you used waze lately? It blows the crap out of what you think of as Satnav. Also saying doing the knowledge is a test of character is laughable. If that was the case John Worboys would never have gotten his license. He did.

    2 You laughing at modern GPS systems shows you're a bit stuck behind the times, same as when a bunch of cabbies put forth a legal challenge against card readers and before that the legal challenge against the cycle superhighway.

    3 Which conveniently leads to my next point. You say you're one of 25,000 sole traders. But you sure would have reaped the benefits if LTDA's legal challenges against the future and innovation worked out for you. Wouldn't that money have been better spent on building a single app for all of London's Black Cabs? Letting you all take advantage of working together on building, deploying and marketing a single app to all Londoners for their Taxi needs, but no, fighting against the cycle superhighway.

    4 You paint Uber as this giant enemy vs the little guy when LTDA could have pushed back by innovating, streamlining and improving their service. Demanding that TfL allow you to be cheaper, use more fuel efficient hybrid vehicles that pollute less and are cheaper to run than god awful diesel.

    All I've seen so far in this post is a justification and defence of the old status quo and no acceptance of disruptive change. Enjoy your time like the buggy whip makers of old.

    1. 1. Well done for remembering Worboys (who I mentioned in the piece), 1 case in how long in this trade? 1 too many granted, but it's not 32 in a single year is it.

      2. Where did I laugh at GPS? I specifically stated it does a job. And I wasn't arguing AGAINST its use, if you actually read what I said.

      3. The arguments against card readers weren't against their introduction, it was against the way they were introduced, ie lack of authorised choice (given a large no of cab drivers already had and had paid for their reader systems, myself included), insistence on their rear compartment mounting and the ensuing cost that incurred and the high commission rates that drivers had to pay. As for the superhighway challenge, I and many cab drivers disagreed with this challenge, I agree it was wasteful and terrible PR for us. Important to remember here that LTDA do not represent the whole trade, me included. They aren't a union they are just a trade body, albeit with the most members. But they don't necessarily speak for me.

      4. Agree with some of your points here but, again, it isn't the LTDAs service. As I said in the piece, we have had apps for some time, predating uber. Plus, the LTDA may represent a few thousand drivers but they are in NO WAY in the same stratosphere as Uber in terms of finance. So my argument stands here in terms of the sizes of the two entities.

      As for your last paragraph, except the unnecessary insult at the end which does you no favours, the point of the piece was to lay out facts which addressed uninformed comment that I see everywhere, nothing more nothing less. Which I stated clearly at the outset. Whilst I'm obviously biased I tried to stick to facts and a lot of feedback from non cab drivers on social media has welcomed the post as informative and well written (which is obviously a matter of opinion). I have no problem with anyone who disagrees.

      Thanks for taking the time to read it anyway and good luck to you.

  2. People's argument that the Knowledge is outdated because we have SatNav is laughable. Hit a bit of traffic and you're stuck, even with Waze etc. SatNav can take ages to recalculate, if it ever does. A cabbie who has done the Knowledge will know 17 alternate routes to get you where you need to go. Sure, they may hit a bit of traffic, it is London after all, but they won't be stopped by it.