Town Mouse Tom Hodgkin­son

The Oldie - - NEWS - 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.

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