The advent of smartphone apps such as Uber and Hailo, which allow you to call a wide range of taxis (and competing non-taxis) from any location, has raised the ire of “official” taxi drivers and their companies. This summer has seen this showdown come to a head in London, perhaps the world’s most famous taxicab city: The drivers of the city’s famous black cabs have held strikes and vehicular sit-ins to call for a ban on the use of the popular apps, which they say cut into their business by allowing less-regulated private-hire drivers to cut into their protected street-hailing privileges. We’ve brought together two experienced London-cab riders, writer Andrew Lovesey and international-affairs columnist Doug Saunders, to debate the merits of these apps.
Andrew Lovesey : I have always been a second-degree Uber user: I’m too on-the-fence to surrender my credit card, but I don’t throw up my hands in protest when a Lincoln rolls up, either. The smartphone app — which allows users to order regular taxis, or independently-driven town cars and SUVs, on their phone — occasionally has me convinced it is the way of the future.
But it would be a travesty were Uber to eradicate the few decent cab markets in the world. If Uber has its way, iconic black cabs will not be crawling the streets of London much longer, and no amount of nostalgic reverie for halcyon days will prevent this dismal development. I prefer the good old option of legislative protection for London’s black cabs, which represent a sort of world heritage taxi service.
Black cab drivers are by far the most skilled of any cabby worldwide; furthermore, their cabs are the most passenger-friendly by design — you can easily climb in one without doffing your top hat — and also the cleanest anywhere. The drivers undergo two to four years of uncompensated training in order to receive their first badge — some even continue on another two years to obtain the highest ranking — and the process is gruelling: drivers set out on motorbikes to learn every mews, lane, high street and close in the British capital, thereby acquiring what is termed “the Knowledge.” Contrast this with the Toronto cab driver who recently told a visitor from Boston that he didn’t know where the Four Seasons Hotel was located.
Uber has managed to become a success in Canadian cities since its launch two years ago, and continues to explode in use in the United States, but it does not belong in London, where there is already a constant struggle between the official black cabs and minicabs, a lower grade service with often shabbier cars (they are not unlike the variety that knock and creak around Toronto's potholed streets).
Transport for London, the municipal body that oversees all transportation for Greater London, has given minicabs the upper hand in this battle, allowing drivers with Uber to pluck fares off Regent Street without even having to raise an arm. This is why black cab drivers recently blockaded Trafalgar Square in protest. This indifference to Uber is ending an era for London, a city that has offered visitors and residents the most expert drivers on the street with the best cabs.
There are other options to legislation. It has been suggested that London could adopt its own app for black cabs that essentially accomplishes the same thing, allowing them to remain competitive in an industry saturated with car-calling apps such as Uber or Hailo. Uber is an innovation, but it is not rocket science, after all.
There was a similar uproar raised by Montreal cabbies when the mobile application launched there last year, and some Toronto drivers openly resent its use.
As we inevitably move toward a world in which there are fewer and fewer private automobiles, there need to be a range of alternatives for getting around, from efficient public mass transit to, at the higher end, quality cab services. London has set the world standard for that, and we all have an interest in ensuring not only that it survives, but that it is emulated elsewhere.
Doug Saunders : I’m glad to see that London is the site of the world’s most prominent legal and political showdown over cab-hailing apps such as Uber and Hailo. I’ve spent more than a decade living in London at various points in my life, and therefore have spent hundreds of hours, and countless thousands of dollars, in the city’s legendary black cabs.
Based on that experience, I can assure you that the best thing that could come from these apps would be the complete demise of London’s black-cab cartel - - and of similar protected-oligopoly taxi services around the world.
One of the first things you notice about London’s black cabs is that virtually none of the cabbies is, er, black - - or any colour but pale, even though 4 out of 10 Londoners have dark skin. That’s not overt racism; it’s entrenched privilege, in which these extraordinarily lucrative cab licenses, theoretically divvied out by merit but in practice very exclusive, are kept within a tight circle for generations.
And no wonder: These cabs are the second most expensive in the world (after Tokyo’s); they officially charge around $15 for the first mile (1.6 km); a typical 30-minute crosstown trip costs around $60 with no traffic and considerably more in real conditions. An airport trip is at least $150. During that trip you’ll often hear the driver, if he turns off his obnoxious talk-radio station (black-cab drivers are infamously rude) tell you about his villa in Spain or his timeshare condo in Florida.
I wouldn’t besmirch anyone a Spanish holiday home if it were earned through professional expertise. And that’s what black-cab drivers (like other protected-insider cab chains) claim: They earn their license by taking an exam, the Knowledge, in which they rote-memorize thousands of streets and routes. In practice, this means that many of them rely on fixed, outdated, costly direct-line routes and near-superstitious reliance on non-live information, regardless of traffic, road conditions or weather, without any electronic recourse to such crucial live information. Their charming cars are actually little more than repackaged tractors, with terrible suspensions and unspeakably poor ecological ratings.
But London is also the ideal test city for these apps because it offers a competing, less expensive electronic-based business that has already called the black cabbies’ bluff – and revealed their empty hand. London’s minicabs – regular cars provided by dispatch services – are also classified as part of the city’s public-transportation network, and therefore are regulated just as heavily as black cabs (which is to say that they are equally safe), and often cost less than half as much.
The biggest of the minicab fleets, Addison Lee, decided in the 1990s to use Uber-like technology to beat the black cabs at their game. Rather than relying on decades-old memorization, they bought thousands of spacious vehicles and equipped them with satellite and internet-based technology: You book them online or by cellphone, and text messages inform you of the nearest driver’s name, phone number and distance from your house. They always arrive on time (whereas black cabs can barely be booked by telephone and often don’t show up); their 7-seat vehicles are more spacious, cleaner and far more ecological than black cabs; their drivers are well paid, well trained and cordial (because, unlike black cabbies, they’d lose their job if they weren’t). In fact, many black-cab drivers have hung up their medallions to join the Addison Lee fleet, which now numbers 4,000 vehicles: The earnings and job security are comparable (because popularity and fast technology beats cockney charm) and the modern vehicles don’t destroy the driver’s back.
Services such as Addison Lee have one shortfall: Unlike black cabs, you can’t hail them on the street. If you’re caught in the rain outside Selfridge’s, you’re stuck with the black-taxi louts and their unfathomable fares.
Or, rather, you were: What Hailo and Uber and these other cab-hailing apps do is take the superior public-transit service to the street level. In other words, they will bring the rest of the world the convenience of London’s most successful taxi brand - - not its obsolete black taxis, but its high-tech minicab fleets.
In cities such as Toronto and Vancouver and New York, also subject to official-taxi cartels that prevent more modern services from competing on the street level, this is a revolutionary change. When I use Hailo and Uber in these cities, and watch the driver’s name appear on the screen and mapits approach to my pickup place, I’m not just enjoying the superior transportation service I used to get from services such as Addison Lee in London, I’m also helping shatter a tragically closed business and provide good employment and serious business opportunities to a new, more diverse generation of drivers.