The Great Taxi App Race

As any cab driver will tell you, there was a time over the summer when it seemed that there was a new Taxi booking app appearing every week. Although some seemed to disappear as quickly as they appeared, there are 5 or 6 that seem to be making a reasonable stab at getting properly off the ground. I shudder to think how much money they will end up spending between them, but there is certainly a feeling in the tech community that the London Taxi Trade is ready for some “disruption” and that some money can be made along the way. There was a lot of excitement around the launch of Uber Cab in San Fransisco, and there seemed to be a strong desire in certain quarters to get that level of disruption in London. And part of what I write here will be about if that is really possible here. But before I head off into the depths of a post that could be long and not a little ranty, I need to be upfront about my “interests” in all this. Not only am I obviously a Licensed London Taxi Driver, I am co-founder of Tweetalondoncab (TLC), who in turn had extensive meetings with the people behind what is now Hailo, with a view to combining forces. Those discussions ultimately failed and Hailo then teamed up with the TaxiLight team. TLC itself is not a business and after a couple of false starts is not looking to build it’s own app, it will continue to fill a little niche and provide it’s extremely useful Twitter based information service, Cabup. So my views on all this will almost certainly not be completely unbiased, but they will be based from the viewpoint of someone who has tried to run a taxi booking service & as a driver.

So where are we in the Great Race? Well let’s have a quick look at the runners & riders shall we? In no particular order, and with some omissions I’m sure, here are the services I’ve come across or heard of this year; TaxiZapp, London Taxi App, TaxiStop, Usestands, Get Taxi, Black Cabs App, Cab:App, Hailo, Hail, App Cab & Taxi Square. Quite a list, with the potential for confusion looking pretty high what with the sheer number of apps and the similarity in names. Hail/Hailo? Cab:App/App Cab? Good grief. Out of that list, 4 seem to be making better progress than the rest, Get Taxi, Hailo, London Taxi App and Cab:App, and 2 of those, Hailo & Get Taxi, appear to have serious money behind them.

London Taxi App was first to properly get out into the market and from the feedback I’ve seen from drivers may have done so too soon. I’m sure my driver colleagues will soon put me right, but the initial burst of publicity for London Taxi App seems to have passed, the app itself seems a little unreliable and perhaps they’ve missed their chance to steal a march on rivals. Cab:App is much newer to the market and seems to be going about things in a more measured, steady fashion. Their App, available on most smartphones rather than just iPhone, seems straightforward and their pricing structure simple & fair. The customer pays a £2 booking fee, £1 going to the driver & £1 to Cab:App. The customer settles up with the driver direct, they do not provide the means for drivers to take credit cards payments. To make money, they’ll need to take a lot bookings at a pound a pop but I’m assuming their costs aren’t anywhere near the likes of Hailo or Get Taxi. Whether they’ll have the financial clout to compete with the “big boys” remains to be seen though.

So let’s move on to the big players both of whom, if you follow my tweets, I’ve had my issues with. Yes, I am keen to “win back the work” as much as the next driver, but I do have to ask at what cost? And when the established circuits (Radio Taxis, Dial A Cab & ComCab) are viewed as antiquated, expensive and/or too close to private hire the door should be wide open for someone to come in and provide a new, hi-tech taxi service that blows these circuits away. But on what I’ve seen so far, neither Get Taxi or Hailo are doing that. Get Taxi are insisting on providing drivers with a “drivers box” that attaches to your windscreen like a Sat Nav and a smaller version of the terminals the existing circuits provide. Some drivers are already complaining that the units are poor quality, and that the battery doesn’t last long. Having a separate unit has been pushed as better for safety by Get Taxi, their argument being that using your smartphone while driving is illegal/unsafe. There may be a legal issue here (although I hear that TfL have approved Apps for use on Smartphones) but I fail to see how having an extra box in your cab with the potential for 2 devices competing for your attention, is any safer than having one device that deals with everything. And then there is the cost to drivers, Get Taxis website states that drivers pay “just £5 per week plus 10% pay-as-you-go per job for account work capped at £19 per week”, which works out at over £100/month. Cheaper than most of the current circuits certainly, but not the radical reduction in costs that this technology should be giving drivers. I for one won’t be getting a Get Taxi box in my cab, perhaps if they decide to deliver jobs to drivers via a smartphone I’ll think again. And for the implications of the “pay as you go” model, see below for how I think that affects coverage.

And so we move to Hailo. I will try to choose my words very carefully here as I’ve upset the people behind Hailo already and I have no desire to do so again. But………I don’t like the service they are offering, and here’s why. Hailo, like many of the other Apps, make a big deal out of “winning back our work” by which they mean that lost to the likes of Addison Lee. I’ve always had a problem by what anyone means by “our work”, like black cabs have a divine right to any journey in a car/taxi. But let’s leave that argument for another day. In Hailo’s enthusiasm to “win back our work” they have decided that the customer is king and should not have to pay a penny more than is on the meter, unless they choose to tip the driver. So that means no credit card charge to the customer, no booking fee, no nothing. To make things even easier for the punter they only have to press 2 buttons to book a cab, meaning they don’t even have to tell Hailo where they want to go. Brilliant, as a punter I can get a taxi to come and pick me up from my favourite pub/restaurant and the taxi will even wait for 5 minutes outside before putting the meter on. Take that greedy taxi drivers! But let’s just think about this from those greedy drivers point of view. As a driver I get to use the Hailo App for free, it’s ever so clever and has all sorts of stuff that is going to help me during my working day, stuff that may have been, ahem, “borrowed” from other services. It’ll even keep track of my earnings for me (klaxons now going off in Tax Offices around the country) something Taxi drivers have been desperate to have for years, that pen & paper is history. For those who struggle with irony, that last bit was a joke. But to me, it just smacks of technologists thinking that they know better what a taxi driver wants than the taxi drivers themselves. But I digress slightly. Back to the greedy driver, who’s using Hailo for free, luckily for him he won’t pay a penny until he takes a job from the system. When he does though, he’ll pay “about 10%” of the metered fare for the privilige, but that kindly includes the credit card processing fee if the customer pays by card. It seems unclear if that % stays the same for cash jobs Hailo give you, but they are definitely charging for those, because their T&C’s say they do. All well and good you say, Hailo are providing the tech platform to connect punter & driver, someones got to pay for it right? Well of course. But let’s really think about the implications of this. As a driver I’m out and about on a busy Saturday night and up pops a Hailo job. I’m at Chelsea Bridge, the pickup is a nice restaurant in Knightsbridge. Do I a) take the Hailo job, which I don’t know where the punter is going and I have to pay 10% for or b) reject it and take my chances on finding a street hail around Sloane Square or Victoria. In fact, on a really busy night I won’t have made it as far as Chelsea Bridge empty anyway, and if I do I’m probably getting hailed as the Hailo system is offering me the job. So how are Hailo, or any of the other new services, going to get drivers to cover jobs at busy times? Well there is some stuff on the Hailo site about being higher up the “priority list” the more you accept jobs and the better ratings you get from customers. But, frankly, I don’t think drivers will give 2 hoots about a priority list. They’ll know that at busy times there will only be a few drivers available anyway, so the priority list is meaningless. And we go back to the options a driver has, if every job is allocated without a destination a driver is only going to do that job if he is very close to the pick up and it’s not busy elsewhere in town. Why keep taking jobs at 10% off the meter when you can get the full meter fare from all those nice people waving at you in the street? If you dig into the Hailo website you can find some of their T&C’s which make it clear that Hailo is a distribution platform (with accompanying customer focused rules) only and won’t be held responsible for the actions of customers, and only offer payment protection in certain circumstances. Despite being “run by cabbies” and wanting to “win back our work”, it sounds to me like Hailo will happily introduce you to a punter that needs your service, and get you to cover all the costs of doing so, then run for cover if it all goes pear-shaped. There also appears to be little, if any, attempt to build a community of drivers that might care a bit more about the service and therefore provide the all important customer with better coverage. In short, providing a taxi service is a tricky balance between punter & driver needs, I really think Hailo are far too customer focused. In fact, given that drivers are the ones paying for their service, should they be regarded as the customer here?

To be fair, the problems Hailo face are not exclusive to them. All the new services will struggle to cope at busy times, and I don’t profess to have any smart solutions to these problems. How do the current circuits cope with these issues? Not brilliantly it has to be said, but the likes of Dial A Cab at least have a level of driver loyalty that will be very difficult for the new players to replicate. Dial A Cab in particular are owned by the drivers themselves and when I was a member that, combined with the fixed £140/month subs, made me go out of my way to cover work. I quite literally had a stake in Dial A Cab and clumsy as it may appear, the subs also made me make sure I got my “moneys worth” every month. But the circuits are archaic and it should be possible to provide a similar service for a fraction of the cost. But, with a slightly heavy heart, when I look at the new services on offer now I don’t think any of them offer a realistic, competitive option to what we already have. That is not entirely their fault though, you really do have to question how much taxi drivers are prepared to adapt their working practices to new technology and I have severe doubts about how disruptive technology can be in a trade of 25,000 sole traders, every single one of which has a different motivation to be a cab driver. The experience I’ve had of drivers and the trade while running TLC has left me extremely sceptical about how drivers will welcome these services, and that no matter what they offer drivers they will never be happy.

So there you have it, my view of the Great Taxi App Race. Who will emerge victorious? Or will the cab trade itself leave them all stalled at the starting line? Should be interesting seeing what happens.

I blame the bloomin’ Beatles

I mean, there can’t have been THAT many ZEBRA CROSSINGS back when this photo was taken.  The intervening years have seen our great city afflicted by what can only be described as an epidemic of ZEBRA CROSSINGS.  Pedestrians continue to insist on walking around the city, often forming themselves into herds of marauding sheep, and they also continue to insist on crossing the road.  Cars, and Taxis in particular, just aren’t given the respect they are due and have to play second fiddle to the great unwashed that are roaming around getting in the way of London’s best drivers.

This was playing on my mind as I sat in a queue of traffic that snaked around Russell Square earlier this week, as I tried to get a punter from Bloomsbury Way to Euston.  A short and pretty straightforward journey when you look at an A-Z, but take into effect the Pedestrian factor and a fiver fare ended up nearly £7.  Get through Bloomsbury Sq and you might think you are well on your way, but you just know that the zebra crossing in Bedford Way is going to screw things up.  You could avoid it, but the traffic going the other way doesn’t look a lot better and your punter is likely to scream blue murder.  So you sit there waiting for a) the constant stream of pedestrain to end and b) the constant stream of muppet drivers who think their journey is more important than yours and cut in the queue of cars.  Once you’ve got through that, the traffic by Gordon Sq can be a bit sticky as the ZEBRA CROSSING by Byng Place is slowing things down, then turning right into Gordon Sq you have to be really careful as you turn across the cycle lane, only to be presented with another ZEBRA CROSSING, just before the Bloomsbury Theatre that at the wrong time presents another human wall, thankfully mainly students and therefore expendable if you really do lose the will to live and steamroller your way through.  And there you are eventually at Euston, with a punter wondering why the hell he didn’t walk.  So as I queued at Euston to get my next fare, I asked on Twitter “Can we start a list of most annoying zebra crossings in London? I’ll kick off with Bedford Way.”.  And, as expected, I got a wonderful response, mainly from my cabbie colleagues.  In all there were 13 crossings nominated and I will reveal the top 5 below.  But “honorable” mention must go to, of course, Bedford Way itself (which I’m sure would have received more votes if I hadn’t nominated it in my original Tweet); Anderson Street (as you enter from Kings Road), Great Russel Street (outside the British Museum); Long Acre (outside Covent Garden Tube); Terminus Place, Victoria; Chiswell Street (by the junction of Bunhill Row); Bernard St (outside Russell Square tube); New Cavendish Street (junction with Marylebone High Street).  All, I’m sure you’ll agree, supremely annoying crossings.  But the crossings with the most votes were;

  • 5th – Abbey Road – the temptation to mow a few tourists down is pretty difficult to contain at times, but your mood is often lifted by seeing some divs taking their iconic photo on the crossing further north by Abercorn Place.
  • 4th – St Paul’s Churchyard (or is it still Ludgate Hill there??). I tolerate this crossing because of where it is. But only for the view.
  • 3rd – Bow/Wellington/Russell St, Covent Garden.  Yes, of course, right by the Royal Opera House, and a junction where cabs are are constantly trying to turn into the main flow of traffic. Let’s have a crossing where tourists, who don’t even know how the things work, loiter looking like they have barely evolved since the missing link.
  • 2nd – Endell St/Bow St/Long Acre.  Genius. Within a few hundred yards of our 3rd placed entry let’s have a new crossing right by another hugely busy junction that wasn’t perfect before but worked a hell of a lot better than the new “improvement”.
  • 1st – Great Marlborough Street.  In reality not that much traffic goes down this street, certainly not so much since the “dirty dozen” is closed off and most of Soho has just become a car park. But, if you are forced to travel down there at pretty much any time of the day or night, you just know you are going to be stopped at this crossing FOREVER, only to finally get moving once your previously pre-school children have left home.

Yes, yes I hear you all cry, you cabbies aren’t the most important thing in London. Ha! Well I’ll have you know, I can find at least 25,000 others that will agree with me……..

I say top, you say bottom – let’s call the whole thing off….

heading in the right direction.....?

Let me tell you a cab trade secret.  Cab drivers don’t know EVERY street in London, there are over 20,000 for gawd’s sake, you could never learn them all.  And even when you’ve learned all the ones you need to get you through The Knowledge, you slowly forget some of them too.  Then there is the issue of rubbish intercoms, onsetting deafness through old age & comedy foreign accents, predominantly from our friends directly across the channel.  Witness a job I did on Wednesday night from the Landmark Hotel – “60 Charles Street, pleez” in what can only be described as a Clouseauesque accent.  To which I would normally just ask exactly where the punter was going as I know landmarks much better than house number.  But I didn’t and as we got to Charles St, I slowed down to try and see where No. 60 is.  “Why are we stopping here driver?” was the response from my punter, “You wanted 60 Charles St, no?” as alarm bells started to ring, “No, I wanted *incomprehensible* St”.  So I pull over and after my poor punter has to spell out the name of the Street it turns out he wanted the Gaucho Restaurant on Charlotte Street.  Why didn’t he just say that in the first place? Tsk.  But hopefully you get my point, it isn’t quite as straightforward understanding where someone wants to get to, and these kind of episodes are one of the best examples of why Sat Nav can’t replace The Knowledge.  But let’s not get into that argument, not today anyway.

My other little secret, and the main point of this post, is that if I’m really not sure where a punter means, or I just can’t remember the road, I’ll ask “which end of XYZ Road/Street do you need?”.  Which is designed to get a response that helps me place where the road is like, “Farringdon end”, or “Grays Inn Road end” but can open up a whole other can of geographical worms.  What if the punter says “Oh, about in the middle”, or “up at the top end”, or “down the bottom end”.  Then you’re buggered.  It’s then that I start on the “having a brain freeze/need some more coffee/just can’t think of where that is” type jibberish.  And many times, it really is that I’ve just misheard what the punter said in the first place.

But when someone does say “I’m at the top of the road”, what do you think they mean?  I once had a very long “discussion” with a punter about what was the top (and therefore bottom) of Portobello Road.  Given that Portobello Road is mainly one way for it’s entire length and travels in a S(E) to N(W) direction I would think that it’s a no brainer that the Notting Hill end was the bottom, wouldn’t you?  But no, when I said which end did she want, my punter said “Oh, near the top” and then got upset when I headed for the north end.  So if roads like that are open to debate, they shouldn’t be of course, what about roads that go West to East?  Do they have a top and a bottom?  I’d argue that they do, and that the “top” is the bit closest to the centre of London and the bottom bit furthest away.  So the “top” of Holland Park Avenue would be Notting Hill end and the “bottom” down at Sheperd’s Bush.  Some of you might think this slightly nit picking, or perhaps slightly obsessional, but when your job is to get people as efficiently as possible to their destination, these things really are important.  So next time you get in a cab, just be sure you and your driver are as one when you ask him to take you to the “top” of your road.

** Update 22nd January, 10:20am **

As has been quite rightly pointed out in the comments below, if a road actually does, you know, climb a hill then the top is just naturally the top.  Not the bottom. Just to be clear…………

you can never have enough statues….

….or, if I was in a Monty Python mood; just one more wafer thin statue.

Notes

I’ve included the notes I had to write just now to help myself make sense of what I’d seen and tried to record yesterday; the inordinate number of statues in Parliament Square. Not content with the 7 statues that were already there in the middle of the square, commemorating the great and good of Britain (and elsewhere), it was decided to put Nelson Mandela there as well in 2007. Great to have a statue of Mandela, absolutely no problem with that, but it seems a shame to see him right on the SW edge looking a bit like he’s permanently trying to cross the road. And then you have some other characters floating around the outside of the square looking a little bit uncomfortable, like they’ve arrived at a party where they don’t know anyone. But the full list of those in the inner sanctum (the island in the middle of the square) goes something like this, from the NW corner;


As I mentioned before, there are more statues in the square, the most prominent of which are hanging around outside Middlesex Guildhall waiting for the big boys to invite them into their gang, desperate for a bit of attention are Gerorge Canning & Abraham Lincoln, see below for photos.  And that’s it, lot’s of pictures of statues taken on a beautiful sunny day in London as I wandered around like a tit in a trance while the cab is in the garage.  Some more photos from that walk will crop up here soon no doubt.  Careful out there in the heatwave, London is on the point of melting don’t you know……..

I want to be famous enough to have a roundabout named after me

I want to be famous enough to have a roundabout named after me

Some dusty old colonial

Some dusty old colonial

I say it best, when I say nothing at all……

…….to paraphrase the mighty Ronan Keating.  Just to clarify, he isn’t mighty, I just used that phrase as an opening gambit – a way of introducing a post that will really be about bugger all.  Like Ronan Keating’s career in fact.  This blog has been a pleasure to write from day one and stuff has just been there ready for me to do.  It’s like I’ve been carrying around a constantly overfull cup of tea and someone keeps bumping into me, the overflow spilling into the saucer that is this blog.  It’s not that it hasn’t taken a bit of hard work at times, a bit of effort to go back to a place that needed a photo or a bit more thinking about.  But pretty much everything I’ve done to date, has just easily come out onto the page (PC/Mac/Web Page, whatever) without me having to try that hard.  Anyone that knows me will realise that this has been a good thing, because when things require real effort, that’s when I start to struggle.  And I have been struggling a bit in the last week or so.  Not for things to talk about you understand, I have a notebook in the cab that is nearly full of stuff and I have even organised some of this stuff in a bit of software called Things to try & help me make sense of it all.  Looking at Things now, I have 8 “Blog posts to be published” and 47 “Blog ideas” plus other sections that deal with real life and even a bit of fantasy (ideas that I think might earn me some money).  So my blog should be full of some of this stuff on a regular basis.  But none of it is quite ready (whatever that means) to go out there into the big wide world, I do have some standards after all.  I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to hit some sort of wall, and how appropriate that I hit it in the week of the London Marathon.  I’ve had a busy week and done lots of stuff that I could talk about, there’s my experiment with the Heathrow Feeder Park and it’s rabbits, there’s the ongoing fightback by black cab drivers to stop mini cabs taking over the big central London venues.  I’ve even done lots of WORK.  But none of this has seemed exactly right for Cabbies Capital, so I now find myself wondering what is right and am I just looking for excuses to do nowt?  So while I have my mini crisis, I am going to present to all you lovely people a selection of random images taken by me since I started Cabbies Capital – think of it as my BBC Test Card.  While you all do that, I’m going to sort through all my stuff that is in Things.

told off – by Big Brother 8’s Carole

carolebb8

I often view life as a cab driver as a series of skirmishes in life’s great battle.  Cut up by a bus here, abused by a white van man there; but make sure you give as good as you get.  Someone nearly drives into your precious cab?  I’m not just going to sail on serenely into the sunset, I’m going to let them know what I think of them.  Pedestrians crossing in the wrong place?  Feel the wrath of my horn…….you’re getting the picture, yes?

So there I was, minding my own business near the end of the (informal) rank that was snaking up Harewood Avenue, off the back of the main rank at Marylebone Station.  Maybe because of all the G20 stuff, it was proving to be a challenging day for cab drivers.  Having spent the first hour & a half of my shift just trying to find any rank to park on, with not even a sniff of a street job, I was just pleased to have done a couple of jobs and found space on a rank, albeit on a rank that was vastly oversubscribed.  To be on the end of that rank means a bit of double parking until you can get outside the BNP Paribas building and then onto the rank itself.  Outside the Paribas building is a crossing, not a zebra crossing or anything like that but just an island in the middle of the road.   A middle aged lady looks to cross the road with a kid, I wave her across in front of me as I can see there are no cars coming down the road.  Rather than thank me for this minor act of kindness, she then proceeds to tell me off for blocking the ramp (the what?) and that “you cabs” shouldn’t be blocking the road (we don’t).  Somewhat taken a back, I try to smile serenely but something knaws away at me and I can’t help but say something.  “Just trying to get some work, you know, do my job” is the best I can come up with.  She still isn’t happy and lectures me about blocking the ramp and what if someone in a wheelchair wanted to cross the road, blah, blah, blah….. Oh for god’s sake woman if someone did, and I was in the way, I would move wouldn’t I?  You, you weird looking Greenham Common reject and all round cretin.  And, as I’m not doing much else apart from TRYING TO GET SOME BUSINESS, I might get off my lazy backside and help them across the road.  Don’t make assumptions about me, just because you think cab drivers are morons (we aren’t) and why did you feel the need to say anything in the first place?  Clearly, parts of this converstion were all in my head as she had waddled off in the general direction of Lisson Grove.  And it was only then that it dawned on me who she was. Fucking Carole from Big Brother 8.  She had the nerve to tell me off?  Fucking cheeky cow.

I don’t do numbers……..

highbury-corner-signnumbers

Please hail my cab, get me to take you somewhere in that there London, I’ll go north, south, east or west, I’m not fussy.  Tell me you what Harrods, Le Gavroche, Paddington Station, even, god forbid, Victoria Coach Station.  But do make sure you actually tell me where you want to go.  Be specific.  “Hampstead please, driver” (grrr), “Fulham, geezer” (double grrr) or “That Chinese restaurant on Finchley Road, mate” (head about to explode grrr) just isn’t helpful.  Waiting for your mate to txt you the exact location as we head in a general westerly direction isn’t hugely helpful either.  So before you stick that hand out I’m asking you to have one, fairly important in my opinion, piece of information to hand; where you want to get to.  The actual place, not the pub it’s near, or junction your friend thinks it’s just after, the actual name of the place.  And the absolute icing on this annoying piece of cake, is people’s insistence on giving me the number of the place they are trying to get to.  Sorry to all the lovely Americans out there but London doesn’t work like NYC or LA.  “Four Forty Grosvenor” just doesn’t work as an address here.  Do they mean Grosvenor Place, Road or Crescent for a start?  And what’s wrong with saying four hundred & forty?  It’s like they want to boil down their language to what may in the future become a series of grunts.  And I haven’t even mentioned the “Corner of Gloucester & Cromwell” type instruction.  Gloucester the place?  Cromwell the person?  It doesn’t hurt to say the full road name surely?

Perfect example came last night, a very nice couple wanted to go to New Kings Rd from Kensington.  “Do you know which end of New Kings Rd you need?” I ask, “Er, its 110” they reply.  OK…..I can never remember which end of roads numbers start and tell them that.  “Well, we’re actually going to Tendindo Cuatro Restaurant” they finally cough up, after I apply a Chinese burn to the blokes arm.  For pity’s sake, why on god’s earth didn’t you just say that in the first place?  I know where that place is – I DO NOT KNOW EXACTLY WHERE 110 NEW KINGS ROAD IS.  I DON’T DO NUMBERS.