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
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