Are “busi­ness ho­tels” fit for pur­pose; and can Lon­don’s black taxis sur­vive?

The rise of ser­vices such as Uber is trans­form­ing the city’s iconic black cabs into lit­tle more than charm­ing relics of the past

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS - JEFF MILLS A TRAVEL RE­PORTER AND ED­I­TOR FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS

Lon­don’s iconic black cabs may be a firm fix­ture on the city’s streets, as fa­mil­iar as red tele­phone boxes and dou­ble-decker buses, but the ques­tion is, have they, or to be more pre­cise their driv­ers, had their day? One stereo­type of the black-cab driver will prob­a­bly be fa­mil­iar. Opin­ion­ated, pos­si­bly right-wing and dif­fi­cult to con­vince of al­ter­na­tive routes to desti­na­tions that you know only too well, they then ex­pect you to pay through the nose for the priv­i­lege of their de­tour, then cough up a hefty tip.

In con­trast, an al­ter­na­tive stereo­type of the cab trade is as a no­ble pro­fes­sion for jolly cock­neys. Hack­ney car­riages are well-reg­u­lated and safe, and to ac­cess them you just put up your hand rather than shar­ing your data.

Black cabs have to com­ply with “Con­di­tions of Fit­ness” en­forced by the Pub­lic Car­riage Of­fice, now in­cor­po­rated into Trans­port for Lon­don (TfL). In ad­di­tion, the driv­ers must un­der­take train­ing, some­times for as many as three years, to pass “The Knowl­edge”, which re­main the world’s tough­est taxi driver ex­ams.

The Knowl­edge of Lon­don’s train­ing course, which dates back to 1865, re­quires a driver to have a de­tailed knowl­edge of Lon­don within a 12-mile ra­dius of Char­ing Cross Sta­tion, cov­er­ing some­thing like 25,000 roads and streets and more than 460 “runs” or routes.

But there are down­sides, too. We’ve all heard the trav­ellers’ tales of taxi driv­ers re­fus­ing to take pas­sen­gers south of the river, and some choos­ing far from di­rect routes from air­ports to cen­tral Lon­don when they have vis­i­tors un­fa­mil­iar with the city on board.

ON THE DE­CLINE

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures, there are now around 21,000 black cabs in Lon­don, op­er­ated by nearly 24,000 driv­ers, though the num­ber of driv­ers’ li­cences be­ing granted seems to be de­clin­ing by about nine or ten a week.

What are the rea­sons for this? They are many and var­ied, but a ma­jor one may be that tra­di­tional black cabs have be­come too ex­pen­sive for many or­di­nary peo­ple to use.

A taxi fare from Heathrow to cen­tral Lon­don costs around £65, and many fares in cen­tral Lon­don cost around £1 per minute. Such rates are com­pounded by traf­fic con­ges­tion. Th­ese costs do not in­clude tips, with the re­sult that you can eas­ily shell out an ex­tra 20 per cent on top of the stated fare. Fig­ures are dif­fi­cult to ver­ify but the best es­ti­mates are that black-cab driv­ers earn about £645 a week, which would be £33,000 a year if they never took a hol­i­day and were never sick. That’s be­fore ex­penses.

This may con­trib­ute to cab driv­ers moan­ing to their pas­sen­gers, a cap­tive au­di­ence if ever there was one. The gripes are usu­ally about a cab driver’s lack of busi­ness, the traf­fic, road­works or the in­stal­la­tion of yet more cy­cle lanes (I’m on their side with that one). Now, though, they re­ally do have some­thing to moan about, and that’s Uber. It was only as re­cently as July 2012 that the ride-shar­ing com­pany started ser­vice in Lon­don. Ac­cu­rate fig­ures are dif­fi­cult to ob­tain, but the best es­ti­mates say that there are now around 40,000 Uber driv­ers in Lon­don; twice as many as there are black-cab driv­ers, even though only about 15,000 of them are “full time”. The rest seem to treat driv­ing a Toy­ota Prius as a sec­ond job for a cou­ple of days a week, or even just a few hours. While black-cab driver num­bers are de­clin­ing by the week, it will be no sur­prise that more and more Uber driv­ers are tak­ing to the streets. True, the US-based com­pany faced a bit of a set­back in Septem­ber last year when Trans­port for Lon­don (TfL) failed to re­new its li­cence, but the com­pany con­tin­ues to op­er­ate pend­ing the out­come of the dis­pute, and is plan­ning to give hol­i­day and sick pay to its driv­ers.

The main rea­son for Uber’s pop­u­lar­ity is pretty ob­vi­ous – they are cheaper. Un­like black-cab driv­ers, who need to earn big bucks (plus tips) to fund their large houses and their golf club mem­ber­ships (yes, more stereo­types), Uber driv­ers seem con­tent to get by on around £474, less ex­penses, for a 40-hour week.

And Uber’s ad­van­tage doesn’t stop there. The use of tech­nol­ogy makes or­der­ing your car and pay­ing for your trip sim­ple. And you no longer need to be con­cerned that the driver is tak­ing his favoured route, rather than yours, be­cause Uber driv­ers have no Knowl­edge, and have to rely on their sat-nav.

Best of all, though, you there’s a smaller chance of hav­ing to lis­ten to the driver’s views, be­cause Uber driv­ers of­ten don’t have English as their first lan­guage and are less flu­ent in di­a­tribe.

It’s a bit like the early days of no-frills air­lines tak­ing on the es­tab­lished car­ri­ers. And we all know what hap­pened there.

Black cabs have be­come too ex­pen­sive for many or­di­nary peo­ple to use

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