It was a great strap line, TfL (Transport for London) have been failing Taxi drivers and the public for years. Now was the chance to highlight this and get these issues out there for wider debate. Totally Failing London, geddit? Yet 99% of the news coverage, and blimey there was a lot, focused on Taxis v Uber. Telling the world (and us) that we are anti Uber, anti technology, anti competition and only striking/protesting to save our greedy backsides. Even my fleeting appearance on BBC News was condensed down to a soundbite about the public needing to have trust in the quality of any driver they hail on the street. Rory Cellen-Jones is a lovely man but clearly was only interested in the Uber angle of the demo. In a response mirrored many times on Twitter and the news, Rory’s response when I told him the demo wasn’t about Uber was “But it must be about Uber! If they hadn’t come along, you wouldn’t be having the demo.”. Well, good people, it wasn’t about Uber and I’m going to explain why. Perhaps then, the likes of Jimmy Wales will stop patting me on the head and patronising me. Firstly though I will concede that as a trade we failed to get our message across. There are myriad reasons for this, trade bodies giving out different messages (I was handed a UNITE flyer yesterday that only talked about Uber), trade bodies not having press releases to prime the news organisations etc, etc. But the real problem was that TfL managed to focus the story on Uber, not themselves, and a media apparently obsessed with Uber was happy to pick up that line and run with it. And, oh yeah, Uber playing a blinder yesterday morning by announcing the launch of UberTaxi.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter, what is it that has driven “greedy cabbies” to turn their lights off and start protesting? Here are some of the issues, many that affect the public directly, others that really just affect us as drivers.
- Safety – the level of sexual assault and rape in illegal mini cabs is still worryingly high. TfL have failed to put in place a system that adequately protects the public. Many of these shocking cases end up showing that drivers are working with false driving licences and other documentation. TfL appear to rely on the mini cab Operators to check documentation and it is clear that they are failing to to so. As many judges have said in recent years, women just cannot be sure who is behind the wheel of the mini cab they are getting into. Taxi drivers (John Worboys aside) have an exemplary record with safety. Ask yourself, if you were inclined to prey on women would you take years to study the Knowledge or would you buy a SatNav and a mini cab licence and be working in a matter of days?
- Touting – many people end up in a mini cab after being touted when leaving nightclubs or other venues around the city. This is illegal. Mini cab drivers (or their mate with a clipboard inside or outside a venue) are not allowed to approach you to offer their services, if they do and you get in their cab your journey will not be covered by insurance. There are many venues in London, Oxo Tower is one I visit regularly, where customers are approached as they leave the building and never even see a Taxi as they are ushered into a waiting Mercedes. At these venues you will often see many mini cabs waiting for fares, this is also illegal as mini cabs are not allowed to be “ready for immediate hire”. These rules all go back to the safety issue as the rules are designed to keep passengers safe. It’s just incredibly rare to see these rules enforced in the flesh. Oxo Tower is less than half a mile from TfL’s London Taxi & Private Hire department.
- Rank space – ongoing problems with gaining new ranks & retaining existing rank space was highlighted in recent months with the farcical situation at The Shard. No provision was made for a taxi rank to be placed at this busy location. After drivers started working unofficially from St Thomas’s St an official rank was finally installed, but about 500 yards down the road away from the entrance. As tension rose between drivers and security staff from The Shard it culminated in the police being called on a Friday night to stop taxis entering St Thomas’s St. A “flash” demo ensued with a more formal demo following a week or so later. Eventually a rank was placed outside the venue and The Shard proves to be an excellent source of work with a clear demand for our services. I tell you this story in full to try and highlight the ridiculousness of drivers having to have a demo just to get a rank placed in a sensible place that serves a clear need.
- Licence delays – renewal and issuing of new licences became a real issue last year as many drivers were left without a current licence and were therefore unable to work. Quite what went wrong is unclear with TfL blaming the Home Office over delays with CRB checks and the Home Office blaming TFL. Previously, any delay in renewing licences meant that TfL would issue a temporary licence so drivers could continue to work. This policy has now changed and drivers are left with a potentially huge hole in their earnings. It seems that these issues aren’t completely fixed yet as I was talking to a new driver last week at Euston and he informed me that he had to wait 8 weeks after passing his final knowledge exam to get his licence. He’d left his job to try and complete the final part of the knowledge as quickly as possible and was then left in the lurch for 8 weeks!
There are other issues but I won’t bore you with them here, you’ll have to trust me when I say what I’ve highlighted here is just part of the problem. The London Assembly is even due to investigate TfL’s London Taxi & Private Hire department due to the problems that exist there.
I can’t let this post finish without at least trying to also correct a few of the misconceptions about what the issue with Uber actually is. When you read it, you may scratch your head and think what is all the fuss about. And you’d be right, and it helps to explain why yesterday ABSOLUTELY WAS NOT ABOUT UBER, because in the grand scheme of things Uber are possibly the least of our worries. The day to day inefficiency and incompetence from TfL has a far bigger impact on our working lives.
Let me just explain one little bit of Taxi/PH law first; as a Taxi driver (because of the extra training that allows me to accept instant hails) I am allowed to take bookings direct, unlike a PH driver who must accept a booking from a PH Operator like Addison Lee. This is why what Hailo do (connect me to a punter direct) is within the law and what Uber do isn’t. As previously stated, PH cars are not allowed to make themselves “available for immediate hire” and again, this is what Uber are doing and therefore breaking the law. Then there is the issue of their “virtual meter”. The law states that a PH vehicle is not allowed to be equipped with a meter. Uber, with TfL’s blessing, argue that a smartphone isn’t a meter. I think most right minded people would think that if it does the same thing as a meter, then it most probably is a meter. And an important point here is that Taxis are made to have meters fitted to protect the public from being ripped off. Yes, yes I know there are plenty out there that see our prices as a rip off anyway. But the important point here is that we have a REGULATED meter with prices that are set by TfL. Uber’s meter is controlled by, er, Uber so that they can change the rates at any time and hit you with that great scam of Surge Pricing. When they can’t keep up with demand, you the punter, who Uber claim to be fighting for against the evil taxis, are going to pay through the nose for their service.There are also issues around Uber not asking for destinations (required by law) and Uber not having an operating center in the UK, but in Holland. This final point seems to be the only one that TfL are admitting is a problem and that if they’d known about it before may not have issued their operator licence! I assume that at some point these issues will be addressed, possibly through court action, and Uber will carry on spending their huge reserves of cash trying to take over the market in London. As it happens, after that clever move yesterday, Uber may even become quite popular with Taxi drivers. Half the cost of Hailo (that’s the cost to drivers), meter on at arrival rather than 5 mins waiting time, what’s not to like? If you ignore their investors telling you that they are going to destroy your business and the rampant neo feudalism that is running though the tech industry. Perhaps we’ll leave the neo feudalism debate for another day though, eh?
But I still think there is room for us all, that despite the owners of Hailo and Richard Branson telling me their Apps threaten my livelihood, the taxi trade will be around for a long time yet. There is a false premise in most of the arguments that surround this debate, that technology will revolutionise the Taxi business to such an extent that I will be cast out into the wilderness begging Ron from Hailo to let me drive one of his executive cars. Well I think that’s tosh. Technology can help us, of that I have no doubt, but we still have a service that at it’s most basic works well and efficiently. Punter needs taxi, punter sticks hand in the air and hails one, or walks to a rank and gets one. And what Uber and Hailo really want is to take a big cut of the multi billion pound taxi market. Do they have drivers interests at heart? Definitely not. Do they even have customers interests at heart? Almost certainly not. What they really want is to re sell my work to me for a fee. Isn’t technology wonderful?
Ok, so I vented my spleen a bit about Apps, doesn’t change the fundamental issue here, It isn’t them that threaten the Taxi trade, its TfL and Boris and the politicians that do not seem to care about what is going on, day in, day out on the streets of London. They are, to coin a phrase, Totally Failing London.