London cabbies are fighting a losing battle against Uber
Uber is a public transport game-changer, and London’s traditional cabbies need to stop fighting it and learn to co-exist, says Alex Proud
Every time I hear London’s black cab drivers moaning about minicabs or Uber or whatever their latest gripe is, I think immediately of people being mugged, beaten up or even raped.
The thing is, there’s a pretty much insatiable demand for transport in London on Friday and Saturday nights. This demand is far more than black cabs can deal with. So, surely services like Uber are to be welcomed. They are vastly better than having drunk, vulnerable women and drunk, stupid men wandering around at 2am, desperately trying to figure how to get home to Sydenham.
I was reminded of this when I saw London’s cabbies protesting against Uber last week. Well, they said they weren’t protesting against Uber. They were protesting against TFL “kowtowing to Uber” although this is splitting hairs. They want TFL to take their side against Uber. TFL won’t because its job is to manage transport across London, not to be the taxi drivers’ gimp. So they’ve thrown their toys out of their cabs, as they reliably do whenever they don’t get their own way.
I’ve used Uber a few times recently and I love its product. The cars are good quality and clean, the drivers are polite, they usually arrive in under five minutes and the fares are reasonable. It’s one of those things that, in a small way, has genuinely improved the quality of my life. Of course, I know Uber isn’t perfect, but I believe that its benefits far outweigh the costs. I am all uber uber.
I don’t dislike London’s black cab drivers and I can understand why they’d like to see Uber go under. I’d be upset too if a dozen other nightclubs suddenly opened around me, offering better drinks and cooler music at half the price. But if this happened I’d have to suck it up and change my business model – and I’m afraid London’s taxi drivers will too. With Uber, technological disruption has come to their cosy cartel and there’s nothing they can do about it. They may as well try and hold back the sea. Besides I don’t buy many of their arguments.
For starters, cabbies seem to be against change of any kind. Rather than make a list of the changes they don’t like, it’s easier just to make a list the single change they do like: fare rises. A good recent example of this is the cycle superhighways. It’s not difficult to argue that, in a city with massive congestion problems, significant pollution and terrible bike infrastructure, these should be a priority. After all, anyone on a bike is not in a car.
As car congestion harms cabbies too, you might have thought there would be some common ground to be found here. Nope. Instead, the cabbies have sought a judicial review, thus pointlessly antagonising anyone who rides a bike, apparently blind to the possibility that cyclists may also be taxi users. In this respect, the cabbies are a bit like your ageing Tory uncle. Anything new is bad and anything old is good; the latter even if it’s something you normally moan about all the time.
Is the writing on the wall for the Knowledge? (Photo: Alamy)
But all this is irrelevant. In fact, the irrelevance has been growing for over a decade. The thing is, the cabbies’ great differentiator used to be that they usually knew where they were going. This was because they’d studied the Knowledge, which has been around since 1865. But, if we’re honest, the writing has been on the wall for the Knowledge ever since satnav arrived. It might not be entirely useless yet but it is far, far less of a selling point than it once was. And there’s no going back. The Knowledge is Death Row and there won’t be a last-minute reprieve.
I don’t actually think the Knowledge is great for cabbies either. It can take years and these days looks like a terrible waste of time that could be more productively used to make money. There’s no point in getting misty-eyed over this. You may as well weep over people not sending each other handwritten letters any more. If the Knowledge didn’t exist today, nobody would feel the need to invent it. It has, as Silicon Valley types like to say, been “obsoleted.”
Of course, there are few areas where I agree with the cabbies. Of course, I think the regulators need to look at Uber carefully and ensure a level playing field, although the TFL-related protests suggest to me that a level playing field is the last thing the taxi drivers really want. I’d also like to see Uber pay taxes in the countries in which it operates, but this is part of a larger argument about multinationals and useless, supine governments.
But overall Uber strikes me as a force for good and not just because it isn’t 1992 any more. For starters, Uber often provides you with a cab when others can’t. Have you ever tried to find a taxi on a Friday or Saturday night in Camden? It can take forever. Then, if you do find one, you’d better be going somewhere convenient in north London. Sorry cabbies, but I’ve seen friends who live south of the river refused so many times that I know your much vaunted obligation to take people anywhere in London counts for nothing at 1:30am on a rainy February morning. Again, all this points to the capriciousness of the cabbies. If Uber will take people to Streatham, and you won’t, they’re not taking your business away are they?
It is as a club owner that I like Uber most, though. Here, I see it as a real game-changer. Come the end of the night, huge numbers of people pour out onto the streets and there isn’t the transport to cope with them. So, if Uber can get them home safely, what’s not to like?
This actually brings me to a very serious point. People will inevitably say, “But what if I get raped in an Uber cab?” Here my first thought is that, actually, you can get a great deal of information about your driver before you get in the car. He or she will have been rated by people who have used the driver before; you’ll have their license plate and you’ll have a picture of them. In terms of reducing risk, especially to women, I’d argue that being able to get an Uber car home is immeasurably safer than wandering the streets London at 2am looking for a taxi. Besides, if we really want to go down this road (and it’s often an unpleasant one, tinged with all sorts of prejudices) one of the UK’s worst sexual predators was John Worboys, a black cab driver.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that Uber is cheaper. Black cabs are very, very expensive. I don’t think I’ve ever visited another capital city and not been delighted at how cheap the taxis are. This, for many people will be the single biggest point. I certainly think that when I pay an Uber driver I don’t have the feeling of being fleeced you get with black cabs. Perhaps, then, rather than strike to preserve the status quo, taxi drivers might start think about how they can adapt to the new reality. Here’s an idea. Why not scale back the increasingly useless Knowledge, so that it takes two months rather than two years – and reduce fares to make yourselves more competitive.
For what it’s worth, I’m sure black cabs and Uber will find a way to co-exist. And I don’t think Uber will destroy the cabbies’ livelihoods, not least because the phrase “black cabs for tourists, minicabs for locals” has been around for as long as I can remember. That said, the cabbies need to be careful. Their current behaviour is the best free advertising Uber could possibly ask for. Last June, when they staged a go-slow protest, Uber saw an 850 per cent jump in sign-ups. source http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11561988/London-cabbies-are-fighting-a-losing-battle-against-Uber.html