Town Mouse Tom Hodgkinson
London is embroiled in a battle over the right to drive taxis. In the future, this period will surely be referred to as the Great Cab War of 2017.
Uber, at the centre of this conflict, is a company founded in California in 2009. It has had literally billions of dollars poured into it by banks such as Goldman Sachs and investment funds like Blackrock (for which the multi-jobbed London Evening Standard editor, George Osborne, toils one day a week in return for £650,000), and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment fund, which has invested $3.5 billion.
Uber is a simple idea. It deploys a computer programme which uses modern phone technology. The customer logs on to the Uber website using a mobile phone or other smart device and asks for a minicab. Any nearby driver, who is also connected to Uber, will see the request, and the would-be passenger’s location. One is assigned to pick up, and comes to collect them. Uber then takes thirty per cent of the fare.
Uber is part of a group of Silicon Valley companies whose avowed aim, in their own words, is to ‘disrupt’ existing business models. For disrupt, read ‘completely destroy’. Uber launches itself in a new city with little regard for existing regulations. It gets people addicted to the service by charging very low fares. By the time the regulators catch up, it’s too late: Uber has tens of thousands of drivers and millions of customers.
It is a brilliant ruse. Uber employs no drivers – its workers it classifies as entrepreneurs – and it owns no cars. It simply puts driver in contact with passenger – like an agent – and extracts its fee. Uber drivers are, generally, new immigrants who welcome the chance to earn £300 or £400 a week. It’s a job any driver can get. And since we now have satnavs on phones, the drivers need no prior knowledge of the streets of the city – unlike black cab drivers, who spend three years learning the twists, turns and landmarks of London town.
Uber attracted investors because they reckoned they were backing a company with the potential to create a worldwide, Coca-cola-style monopoly.
As you can imagine, Uber infuriated the various guilds of cab drivers in cities across the world who have seen their monopoly, or near-monopoly, destroyed. Not only does Uber offer an efficient service, but it also savagely undercuts local firms, meaning that taking an Uber is often cheaper even than public transport, if, say, four share the fare.
Last year, riot police were called to anti-uber protests in Paris, where French cabbies blocked roads and set fire to tyres. In London, black cab drivers have resorted to the 1970s-style ‘go-slow’. But Uber ploughs on – it has a lot to lose: last year, it hauled in more than six billion dollars in its tax on taxis.
But the ruse may be over in London. At the end of September, Transport for London (TFL), the company which oversees and regulates taxis in the capital, refused to renew Uber’s licence, citing concerns over the vetting of its drivers. Unlike his supine predecessor, Boris Johnson, who let Uber do what it wanted, plucky mayor Sadiq Khan has stood up to the Californian giant.
I am delighted about this, because I had nurtured a burning hatred for Uber.
It’s not that I have a great love for London cabbies. They have been effing and blinding, taking people the long way round, overcharging and generally resisting any change for many centuries.
Cab wars in London are not a recent phenomenon. In the 1500s, the Watermen’s Company, the trade association for ferrymen, kept its new rivals, the Hackney carriages and sedan chairs, out of the city for years. They were the ancestors of today’s black cab drivers. One scene in the film Shakespeare in Love has a waterman boasting, ‘I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat once.’ The watermen were defeated and, in 1662, four hundred licences were granted to Hackney carriages and sedans. Each was issued with a number and a plate, as today.
In the 18th century, cab drivers were notorious for bad language and for trying it on – leading to fresh regulations. A new regulatory clause, introduced during Queen Anne’s reign, stated, ‘The drivers of coaches, and carriers of chairs, on demanding more than their fare, or using abusive language, are to forfeit not more than five shillings, and in default of the payment, they are to be sent to the House of Correction for seven days.’
Ferrying people around town attracts a certain kind: independent-minded and inclined to extreme grumpiness. Uber drivers are, on the other hand, encouraged to be polite and cheerful – after all, they will be rated, online, by the customer.
Following the announcement that TFL would not renew Uber’s licence, young people took to social media in droves to whinge. ‘How am I going to get home now?’ they cried. How pathetic. There are things called buses and tubes – and Uber is not the only minicab firm in London.
One rival to Uber is Taxify. This is an Estonian start-up, of all things, and the founder claims his drivers get a better deal, because Taxify taxes them only ten per cent. I told my children and staff at the Idler (my company) to boycott Uber and get Taxify instead.
Taxify – like Uber – has suffered protests. In Pretoria, two Taxify vehicles were torched by cabbies. In Nairobi, Uber and Taxify drivers went on strike to protest over low wages. It’s carnage.
In the current environment, then, Town Mouse reckons it is safer to stick to his trusty bicycle. The old ways are so much more reliable.