London’s taxi vehicles and taxi drivers have been in decline for seven years now, but should anyone care? Will less black cabs mean more work for the few black cabs that do remain and the few new drivers appearing on London’s streets? Will their demise simply mean a displacement of business to minicabs, app companies and public transport? Who can say but we are soon to find out unless something is done to stem the decline.
The facts are that last week (week ending 18 October) Transport for London (TfL) ended the week with 331 less taxis than the previous week, leaving a mere 15,641 familiar black cabs trawling London’s streets. In 2013/14 there were almost 23k licensed taxi in London. Taxi driver licences are also falling, with 21,546 licensed drivers remaining vs 25,500 in 2013/14. Last week saw another fall in driver numbers of 47 with only 5 new badges being issued. No one needs an A level in maths to work out that the decline in taxis and drivers could mean that by the end of the next decade there will be none left or certainly none worth talking about left. The old mantra of taxis ending up like the gondoliers in Venice is fast becoming a reality.
I should declare an interest in the dim and distant past I undertook the Knowledge of London and became a green badge (all London) taxi driver. At that time the Knowledge could be completed in a year or so, minicabs were unlicensed and therefore taxis had the kudos of being the safer form of personal transport. Following big bang in 1986 the big American banks poured into London, consultancies grew, law firms grew, the airport got busier and busier and in the early 90’s Canary Wharf was born. London saw many ups and downs but overall grew strongly as did the taxi industry. When I was a youngster growing up in London the black taxi driver was seen at the upper end of a working-class hierarchy of occupations. It sat alongside dockers, printers, publicans and wholesale market workers as a ‘good job’.
From a customer perspective black cabs have served London well. They have been available, safe, comfortable and only a wave away. When you got back from holiday the familiar sight of a black cab was welcoming and reassuring. Yes, they had their foibles; refusals were the curse of the industry – not going that way, too late, too early, don’t go to South London etc was the very reason I came into the industry. When I was looking for a new industry and living in Islington my thoughts were that this can’t be a bad job as I am often being refused in the West End as Islington was ‘too far’. Happily, as I entered the trade in 1981 the fares increased by the biggest percentage in decades, waiting time became an important feature of the meter and suddenly all journeys became worthwhile.
The requirement for wheelchair accessibility whilst initially not the most popular of decisions quickly became a real asset to taxis enabling them to get to the parts of London others were not allowed to. Radio Circuits enjoyed their zenith in the early noughties and then the unthinkable or certainly the unwanted happened – minicabs were licensed and taxis lost their mantra of unlicensed minicabs being driven by rapists and muggers and instead minicab drivers had to undertake the same background checks as Black Cab drivers. The advent of app companies, the growing levels of congestion and a reducing number of people who were prepared to spend what was now years on the Knowledge all had their impact on the beginning of the taxi’s decline. Taxis were priced out of the market, radio circuits declined and some faded away altogether and the slowdown in growth turned into a modest reduction in numbers that has morphed into a steady and now quickening decline.
So, is this all about COVID-19 and will things simply reverse once things go back to normal? Well two responses to that; going back to normal is not a foregone conclusion and no as the reasons for the decline of taxis in London did not begin with COVID- 19 although it has certainly exacerbated a difficult situation. I was asked to attend a meeting at City Hall probably three years ago to speak about ‘how we save the black taxi’. My words whilst politely received did not accord with the prevailing anger at what appeared to be a consensus that TfL were four square to blame. The rationale was largely around the licensing of Uber and the belief that they were being allowed to do what they liked whilst an impotent regulator watched from the side lines.
My views were that the Knowledge of London took too long thereby capping, and as it has transpired reducing, overall taxi numbers, that the product cycle of the taxi as a service was on the wane and that like any service or product the customer proposition needed to be updated and relaunched. Whilst the price was out of kilter with the now larger part of the industry private hire that in itself was not in my view its death knell. There is a price to pay for instant access. The expectation that TfL would somehow protect the taxi industry, interestingly something I have heard in relation to private hire at private hire meetings as well, was not realistic. TfL as a regulator has no legal obligation to assist either side of the market. Possibly in its role as transport provider it does. BUT what I suggested was that the industry should be leading its own fightback. No institution knows the industry better than the industry itself and no institution is better placed to address its problems.
The taxi industry enabled many working-class people to leave the factories, leave mundane jobs, and leave low pay behind. After the travails of the Knowledge taxi drivers were able to work hard, work independently and prosper. The flexibility of the role and the security of knowing that they would always have a job and be able to earn a living meant that it was considered a good job by working class London. The strict criteria for criminal background checks, the omnipotence of the Public Carriage Office and the personal achievement of the Knowledge of London by people who had left school at fifteen with a swimming certificate all conspired to put the taxi driver at the top of the manual jobs’ hierarchy. Social status, a decent income and being part of London and London’s streetscape, all contributed to the aspiration to join this industry.
From a customer’s perspective, one could raise a hand and be whisked safely along London’s streets in the hands of an expert who knew every crack in the pavement. Their trenchant views were entertaining and how else could you treat yourself to the comfort and privacy of personal transport with entertainment thrown in? When it was dark, wet and cold who hasn’t breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of a yellow light?
I personally have a lot to thank the taxi industry for. I earnt a good living as a taxi driver. I enjoyed the role and the comradeship. I moved from driving to managing Computer Cab (now ComCab). I also saw the other side of the industry after licensing moving to work with TfL and with Private Hire. I also wrote my Doctoral Dissertation on the taxi industry. The final words of my dissertation were that the taxi industry after surviving for 350 years now faces its greatest threat to survival. That was probably premature given what has happened since.
To return to the questions at the beginning of this piece can I please say this; Taxis, minicabs and public transport are the reasons that less people use private cars. If we want to reduce congestion in London, if we want to improve air quality, if we want to reduce private cars in London then the whole eco system needs to work. The public need visible physical evidence of the availability of transport – taxis provide that. If the taxi industry is doing well, the private hire industry does well and people use public transport and importantly are more inclined to leave the car at home. There is much research to show that people have a portfolio of transport, they use different parts of that portfolio to suit different scenarios – all parts are important. If you remove one of the parts the portfolio becomes less attractive. Choice is important and differences are likewise important. More choice = more customers.
I honestly do not believe that the benefits of displacement from a defunct taxi industry will have any great benefit for any other part of the personal or public transport sector. I believe that the opposite is probably true that demand will reduce as a consequence, helping no one.
As we move into a period of higher unemployment as machines (well, tech) replaces jobs, high touch personal services such as taxis will provide an important opportunity for those who want to change careers. Many will start off as minicab drivers and progress to become taxi drivers once again providing choice. Not everyone leaves school with a plethora of qualifications and a career lined up, for many taxi driving provided a career opportunity, improved status, social standing, self-confidence and independence and we as a society ignore this at our peril.
So what do the taxi industry need to do to survive and, having achieved that, thrive? Do they need to dump the vehicle and reduce price – I would say no. I believe that they need to get better at what they do well. The vehicle, especially the new electric taxi is great. The Knowledge still has both an intrinsic and extrinsic value but it needs to be quicker to complete. To those in the taxi industry who baulk at more drivers – believe me Sage’s Law (supply creates its own demand) should never be forgotten. Being instantly available, being visible, being entertaining, providing privacy for that important private call, providing Wi-Fi, laptop chargers and... well that is for the taxi industry to define and propose to their customers.
Lastly, I would say this – private hire is always likely to be bigger, it will certainly be cheaper and it will work to different rules BUT taxis have been in and around London for 350 years they would be sadly missed by customers, aspirant drivers and their
competitors. An ecosystem that offers choice, difference and a reason to leave the car at home is what the personal transport industry needs to deliver.
A London without black cabs would be a poorer place on many levels. The industry and the transport provider in London have work to do to stop what has been happening over recent years and to turn the tide before it is too late.
This article was written by Dr Mike Galvin of Mobility Services Limited. Dr Galvin leads the company who are a solutions provider to the mobility industry focused specifically on at scale Taxi, Private Hire and Demand Responsive Transport sector.