Tourists pine for British icons – red buses and post boxes; the stoic Queen’s guard and Big Ben.
There’s a picturesque romanticism to this city and the Black Cab is the epitome of this: the expectation of a cockney driven tour through the side-streets of the capital, orated in rhyming slang and arriving just in the nick of time evokes a nostalgia of simpler times.
And yet, in my two years of living in London, I’ve only ever ridden in one, albeit reluctantly, and only because at 4:00am my battery-less phone left me without Uber.
It’s become apparent that old-school cabbies, unlike me, aren’t the biggest fans of Uber. The app is generally cheaper and more efficient than Black Cabs, resulting in the shrinking and disruption of a livelihood and industry regulated since the times of Oliver Cromwell.
In London and elsewhere cabbies have protested against the firm, bringing cities to their knees with ‘drive-slow’ traffic blockades that haven’t invoked much sympathy from anyone apart from other drivers.
Their disdain is an unrivalled case of old vs new – it’s VHS vs DVD; Myspace vs Facebook or whatever might come next. The point being, that as technology advances, so do the requirements of us; the consumer. And in a free market – shouldn’t we always come first?
The latest furore over Uber comes from Transport for London (TfL) and isn’t short of a conspiracy against consumers.
According to Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and Chair of TfL, the Uber app ‘circumvents the laws’ that apply to Black Cabs, so the answer is to create a ‘level’ playing field, that seems so far, to favour cabbies.
He refers to laws exclusive to hackney carriages such as the ability to be hailed in the street. As it stands, any other cab must be booked through a third party, which arguably, the Uber app is.
Presently cabbies have to pass CRB checks, whereas Uber drivers do not. Cabbies need to know London like the ‘back of their hand’ and pass a test called “The Knowledge”; Uber drivers, like everyone else, simply use GPS.
The proposals from TFL are essentially a leap backwards to the 1970s, when Black Cabs were last regulated.
This means banning the ability to show available cars on a map-based app – the very crux of Uber’s success. It means a ban on drivers working for more than one taxi company – putting part time Uber drivers trying to make ends meet, out of a second job.
The award for the most bizarre, anti-consumerist proposal from TFL, however, stipulates that passengers must wait a minimum of five minutes before getting in a car – meaning vulnerable people will be forced to stand around on street corners in the middle of the night.
A petition calling for TFL’s obstinate proposals to be dropped has reached over 130,000 signatures, citing ‘an end to the Uber you know and love today’ as their reason.
The petition suggests that instead of regulating a modern service to act in the same way as an outmoded one, a true level playing field could be created ‘by reducing today’s burdensome Black Cab regulations’ and replacing them with more accommodative, consumer friendly ones. So instead of bowing down to the old, embrace and assimilate the new.
The question remains though: is Uber really as good as we think it is? Is it worth deregulating and accommodating? As consumers – does it give us the best deal? I decided to enlist my friend Luke Barber and settle the score once and for all in the only way we knew how: a race across London. It’s Black cabs vs Uber. Old vs New. Analogue vs Digital. On your marks…
RACE ONE – The Tourist Trap: Buckingham Palace to Tower Bridge.
BLACK CAB: Luke
PRICE: £29 – reduced to £20
TIME TO ENTER CAB: Seconds
TIME TAKEN TO DESTINATION: 46 minutes.
The first thing to mention about taking a Black Cab to anywhere is the absence of cash points when you are in dire need of one. On the days when I am not desperate for hard currency, there are ATMs everywhere I look, but wandering around in the pouring rain there are none in sight.
That said, with cash in hand, finding a taxi was a fantastically swift task. Stand by the side of any road in central London, doing your best hitchhikers grin and it isn’t long before a yellow taxi’s light screeches to a halt. The start is slow, roadworks and traffic lights leave traffic trudging along at an amoeba’s pace and by the time we reach Westminster the journey has already cost me £9. I find myself wondering whether my £30 will cover the costs.
My driver is Irish, with a wonderfully melodic accent to match, and before long I have heard what I can only assume to be a draft of his autobiography. I’ve quickly learnt his employment history, marital status and his opinions on the current political classes. He takes enormous pride in his car and seems to enjoy roaming the streets looking for his next fare, but something is very clearly at the back of his mind.
“This job won’t last,” he tells me with an air of grave foreboding. “There are too many drivers on the road now, I’m just glad I’m not one of the ones that need to earn £300 a day!” This said, when we arrive at our destination, no matter how much I plead, he knocks 9 quid off the meter to make it a round £20. “The traffic,” he says, “is no more my fault than it is yours.”
PRICE: £12.46 – reduced to £2.46
TIME TO ENTER CAB: 3 minutes
TIME TAKEN TO DESTINATION: 33 Minutes
I hate to think how many tourist’s snaps of Tower Bridge I managed to photobomb while standing in the rain, waiting for Luke to arrive. My driver, Shabbir, didn’t speak the best English I have to say. He did however, offer me a chewing gum and my choice of radio stations before I’d told him he was in a race across London; lovely chap, but the conversation wasn’t exactly riveting.
If I was paying for conversation however, I’d book a psychiatrist. I wanted consumer value and speed, and on both those counts, Uber won – hands down. It’s worth noting that although my journey was only £12.46, in reality I only paid £2.46 because I got a ‘£10 off’ voucher for previously recommending a friend – so in the end, my fare was around 10 times cheaper than Luke’s.
We were both convinced before the race that the Black Cab driver with his ‘knowledge’ would prevail – but in reality Sat-Nav was king; Shabbir’s GPS told us where the traffic was, Luke’s cabbie could only guess.
From the limited conversation I had with my Uber driver, he sung nothing but praises for the company he has only worked 6 months for. He earns slightly less per journey than his previous job as a minicab driver but the combination of not having to go back to an office for his next job and the sheer volume of pick-ups Uber provides him with means he makes more money.
He picks his own hours; sees himself as being self employed and subsequently has more time to spend with his children while his wife works evenings. Uber smashed it on this occasion: it was faster, cheaper, took barely a moment to arrive and was a pleasant enough journey. As far as value for the consumer goes: I’m still convinced it’s a far superior service.
RACE TWO: The Drunken Student: Dalston to Camden
BLACK CAB: Elliott
TIME TO GET IN CAB: Seconds
TIME TAKEN TO DESTINATION: 18 minutes
“UBER DRIVERS DON’T KNOW ANYTHING” cried Ahmed, my cab driver, as we pulled away from Dalston. Luke and I had chips, a beer and got on our way at 12:30am – it was going to be tight: there were cabs and Ubers aplenty roaming the dark streets of East London. ‘They don’t pay TAX!’ he deplored: ‘the money they make goes abroad!’.
Clearly Ahmed, was not a fan of Uber. And to an extent, despite my insistence on the brilliance of the app, I can understand why. He, like my Uber driver from earlier, had also worked as a minicab driver, but instead of picking up a GPS, studied for 3 years to pass ‘The Knowledge’. “You could buy car and GPS and be Uber driver tomorrow init!” he insisted, in broken Bangladeshi – English. And I suppose he’s right, really. I asked him about the star rating offered to Uber drivers and customers, which he deemed unnecessary because ‘government licence is better than all stars!’.
It took me seconds to find a cab with its light on, and I was pleased to find a cabbie who, although didn’t partake in the ‘drive slow’ protest, was clearly vehemently against Uber. The journey was fun, he was chatty (although using his phone while driving on occasion, much to my disdain) and we arrived in Camden in 18 minutes. As I got out of the cab to write down the cost of my journey however: Luke arrived, seconds behind me. Did the knowledge give me an upper hand? No. Was my ride more expensive than his? Considerably. Over double in fact.
TIME TO GET IN CAB: 5 minutes
TIME TAKEN TO DESTINATION: 19 minutes
Dalston is not the kind of place that I enjoy being at 12:30 on a cold Thursday morning. By now, the drinking holes, nightclubs, and off licences have shut their doors, leaving the streets bathed in the fluorescent light of the countless kebab shops that line Kingsland Road. There seems to be one last option for those who don’t feel ready for bed: the dreaded Camden High Street.
I set my pick up point to the corner of Dalston Lane and the app tells me that my driver, Nuri, will be with me shortly. The little car on my phone screen tells me that his Toyota Prius (surprise, surprise) is cruising past me. Only, when I look up, he is nowhere to be seen. It takes 5 minutes before a call comes through from a distressed sounding Nuri who tells me that he is double parked and that I need to find him quickly before he gets a ticket. Slightly miffed, and wondering if this defeats the purpose of a car-on-request service, I set off in search, finding him about 30 yards away on the other side of the High Street.
After a close – and slightly ironic – brush with a Black Cab as I sprint across the road, I’m in the back of the car and we’re off. The man at the wheel is from Istanbul and has been working for Uber for two weeks. He claims to have done ‘the knowledge’ and tells me he is taking the quick way but when I look up, the Sat-Nav seems to be doing most of the work. When I ask him which he thinks is better, phone or mind? He takes a moment before pointing at his phone and exclaiming “THIS. IS. KNOWLEDGE!” As he does, the headlights swing on to my opponent, stood at the finish line, a smug grin adorning his illuminated face.
I may be starting to sound like I want Black Cabs off the streets, replaced by a fleet of GPS-laden Toyota Prius’, doomed to history books and classical films: I do not. From the perspective of city tourism, the death of the Hackney Carriage would be tantamount to knocking down Big Ben.
I do however believe that Boris is misled in trying to ban technology that saves the inhabitants of his city money. It makes him sound like a luddite.
Uber is clearly better value for us Londoners, most of whom are skint already. Our Mayor seems to forget it was his party that privatised the railways and utilities to break up statutory monopolies and introduce competition.
Well, competition is exactly what we have here – and it’s good for the consumer. He’s trying to ‘level the playing field’ with a burst bubble. It’s adapt or die, and if the cab drivers continue to charge as much as they do, die they shall.
Deregulate them, adapt them to suit the modern world and our present needs. Not the other way round Boris, mate.
Thanks to Luke Barber