Barely seconds into the taxi journey and I hear the voice behind me ask “have you been busy?"
No single taxi journey is the same, whether it be down to driving environment, the route taken or the conversations taking place in a cab. Some interactions with customers can be memorable for a number of reasons whether that be for positive or negative.
If we look at just the conversations between cabbies and passengers, some encounters can feel a little like Groundhog Day. Some of the most common questions I and other cabbies get asked in the taxi include:
Have you been out long?
When you finishing up?
Can we go my preferred route?
Do you enjoy the job?
What do you think of Uber?
What do you think about cyclists?
How long did it take you to complete the Knowledge?
What is the range of the electric taxi?
And the classic, who is the most famous person you’ve had in the taxi?
Then getting back to the original question, and probably the most asked one of all… Are you busy?
So… Am I busy?
Pre-pandemic this question was delivered in a different tone, asked more in the form of small talk. However, since the pandemic placed restrictions on travel, the question has shifted in meaning.
Industries have in the past used work levels experienced in the taxi trade to measure the changes in the economy. Quite simply a thriving taxi industry means businesses are confident and leisure money is being spent elsewhere. On the flip side, the taxi industry is also always one of the first sectors to feel economic uncertainty whether that be leading up to a recession or during political instability.
Since March 2020 when the pandemic first became a major factor in most decisions we make during daily work and home life, passengers now use cabbies as a barometer to measure whether any noticeable shifts in normality are taking place. To be fair, taxi drivers can gauge pandemic footfall pretty well.
A good example would be footfall around train stations. During the pandemic, journeys to and from railway stations plunged as people stayed local, but slowly as restrictions ease, cabbies can slowly see more people requesting destinations from pre-COVID days. As retail restrictions eased cabbies would be drawn to potentially more work where footfall and demand was growing.
As each restriction eased, the predicted pent-up demand to get back to normality has been gathering pace.
In London, taxi fleets, payment solution providers and booking apps have all shared positive results based around the number of card payments and app bookings made recently.
In mid-June a spokesperson from taxi card payment provider Cabvision said: “Another encouraging set of data from yesterday giving us further encouragement for an active Bank Holiday weekend.
“Our data has been showing that Mondays and Tuesdays remain subdued but that all other days recovering well. Still some way to go but poverty earnings appear behind us.”
Cabvision also said: “Have no idea on all work levels but between Jan - May, transaction levels have increased by 600%
“Wednesday to Sunday are now consistently respectable days.
“We still have some way to go but when we wave goodbye to final restrictions driver earnings should quickly bounce back to pre-COVID.”
Importantly cab drivers like to return the question too. By asking passengers in the cab about their own experiences, we are able to piece together a good picture of the wider economy and morale in the regions we ply our trade. The main take away throughout the pandemic is that five-day working weeks in the capital may be a thing of the past for many, as people enjoy the potential of a better work-life balance.
For some cabbies you could see this as reduced footfall, so reduced passengers. However, for some and for me personally I think the demand for black cabs will not change much when compared to pre-pandemic levels if you look at the reasons why people want to cut some, but most importantly not all, days in the office.
Commuters want to cut the travel for the most basic and mundane work days. Who can blame them. Those monotonous days saw an hour commute in and out on the train to sit at their desk all day. Something that can be achieved at home.
However in the days workers do plan to come into the office it should usually involve a team meeting, client meeting, training days, lunch with colleagues or some other social aspect of working. These working days are mainly going to be more ‘unusual’ and potentially involve moving around throughout the day at multiple venues. There’s also the opportunity to spend time with colleagues after working hours too. These activities and working days are the most important to taxi drivers given the ad hoc nature of travel.
There is an opportunity for taxi drivers in the coming months to provide commuters with a personalised safe space to travel when they need it. And given the dire work levels for taxi drivers since March 2020, the trade is ready to serve any demand it may throw its way.
So, getting back to the original question from the back of the cab asking whether we’re busy… “we’re slowly getting there”.