A recent think tank report which called for the Knowledge of London (KOL) to be scrapped and minicabs to be allowed to pick up the public from the streets plying-for-hire caused a brief kerfuffle throughout the media and industry.
The new report called ‘A Fare Shake: Reforming Taxis for the 21st Century’, was published by the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). It argued that the Government should move to overhaul current taxi legislation, creating a more ‘dynamic sector’ to better serve the requirements of the public.
In short, the report recommended SIX key policies. These included:
Remove duplication and regressive licensing by creating a single, standard licensing regime, enforced by a national licensing authority.
Abolish the KOL tests which the report says have become unnecessary due to GPS and digital maps.
Permit minicabs to be hailed from the pavement and allow all licenced operators to use bus lanes.
Support more Paratransit Light Vehicles. These are higher capacity vehicles which run regular services along high-demand routes and which can be summoned by a customer.
Allow drivers to claim the cost of passenger-facing CCTV back against tax and encourage the use of online safety kits to improve standards of safety.
Offer incentives for taxi and PHV drivers to switch to greener vehicles.
Maxwell Marlow, report author and Development and Research Officer at the Adam Smith Institute, said: “Britain operates critical services on last millennium’s laws. It’s time to put the brakes on special interests, who inflate costs and gate-keep with the antiquated and defunct ‘Knowledge’, and give consumers more choice.
“We need to simplify our licensing system, making it more fair and transparent, whilst ensuring that our fleets are greener, safer, and more efficient than before. The report contains a myriad of policies to give Britons the freedom to travel that they deserve, turbocharge the economy and relieve the cost-of-living crisis for many along the way.”
So, what was the response?
Given the media attention with headlines about scrapping the KOL, many within the taxi industry have had to go through all the reasons why two tier-licensing works.
Steve McNamara, LTDA General Secretary, said in TAXI Newspaper: “It goes without saying that the last thing any of the big apps want is any more rules, regs’ or requirements and are doing all they can to bring political pressure and gain support from politicians of all parties and locations.
“Rather cleverly, their press releases referenced ‘scrapping the Knowledge’ which secured them some great media coverage. I then spent the day doing interviews, countering the ASI’s calls for a race to the bottom and championing the KOL, our safety record, green credentials, and professionalism.
“The report is going nowhere.”
Point by point
So, was the whole report a waste of time? Many would say so, but there were some talking points that are currently in the process of change or are still hotly contested. Here we’ll go through some of those in more detail.
‘Remove duplication and regressive licensing by creating a single, standard licensing regime, enforced by a national licencing authority.’
The taxi and PHV sector has long argued for better and more up to date Best Practice Guidance. That ball is however rolling after the Government opened up a 12-week consultation to update guidance supplied to local authorities to better cope with new digital ways of working following the boom in ride-hailing services.
The Department for Transport (DfT) first issued best practice guidance to licensing authorities in 2006 and this was refreshed in 2010.
It is recognised that much has changed in the industry and the time has come to update the guidance to ensure it reflects new ways of working, new technology and feedback from interested parties.
Over 270 licensing authorities follow these guidelines. Changes around window tinting, taxi identification, vehicle age limits, enhanced driving tests and ending topographical tests for PHV drivers are all likely to feature heavily throughout the consolation.
‘Abolish the KOL tests which the report says has become unnecessary due to GPS and digital maps.’
The report focuses heavily on London with regards to scrapping the topographical testing, but this argument could transfer to any licensing authority.
Any taxi driver will tell you, myself included, that the KOL is vital if you want to provide the very best service to passengers that you can. Surely there are few jobs in the world where having less knowledge in your profession is better for the customer after all.
GPS is a fantastic tool if you don’t know a city. It will get you from A-B in some form or another. Will it however take you the best route? Will the journey be safer with a driver constantly checking a small screen rather than the road ahead?
GPS serves a purpose when looking for road closures, but very rarely does it provide the quickest journey in the experience of London cabbies where there are multiple road options available. If you’re heading east to west through a city, then it’s likely that everyone following a sat-nav doing that same journey is looking at that exact same route as you are. If everyone is on that same route... how is it ever going to be the quickest?
Knowing a city inside out, can mean taxi drivers can react instinctively. Something technology has yet to achieve.
When picking up passengers who hail taxis down it’s also important that you pick up and go. Spending time keying in the destination on a sat-nav whilst traffic forms behind isn’t progressive, is it? What if the internet connection is slow or non-existent, what does the driver do then with no road knowledge?
London and other licensing authorities that hold detailed topographical tests should be proud of the level of professionalism and knowledge their drivers offer visitors and residents. Dumbing down is not progressive.
‘Permit minicabs to be hailed from the pavement and allow all licenced operators to use bus lanes.’
A minicab must be pre-booked so they can prepare for the journey. That might involve looking at a map to work out a route, calling ahead to arrange a safe pick-up area or offering a price based on the route they plan to use.
With advanced knowledge of the area, taxi drivers are trained and ready to be hailed down, know the destination straight away and are off within seconds. The public are guaranteed an expected level of service based on the strict standards put on taxi drivers and the vehicles they drive.
All taxis in the capital are wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAV). This requires curb side access to use the ramps and onboard those with disabilities safely. There could be a glimmer of an argument that minicab WAVs could also be afforded similar access, but due to the pre-booking nature of their work operators can communicate prior to pick-up where a safe location away from bus lanes might be. It’s also worth noting that due to the cost of the vehicles only 1% of PHV in the capital are registered as WAVs.
‘Support more Paratransit Light Vehicles. These are higher capacity vehicles which run regular services along high-demand routes and which can be summoned by a customer.’
This is a slightly odd inclusion within the report. These on-demand bus services are neither a taxi or PHV and have been trialled extensively already in London and across the country. Sadly demand for these services have been low and many pulled.
In 2018 Transport for London (TfL) helped fund and promote the GoSutton 'on-demand' bus trial for 12- months. Using mobile and predictive technology, GoSutton aimed to find out whether flexible demand responsive transport services can play a role in boosting public transport use. A year later the service was scrapped.
‘Allow drivers to claim the cost of passenger-facing CCTV back against tax and encourage the use of online safety kits to improve standards of safety.’
After a recent consultation in 2021 it was decided that taxi and minicab owners can choose whether to install in-vehicle CCTV in their vehicles.
In-vehicle CCTV does not include external/road facing cameras such as dashcams. Research from 2021 shows that in London, less than 10% of taxi and PHV drivers have in-vehicle CCTV installed in their vehicle.
CCTV remains a choice as to whether individuals invest in the equipment. This can already be claimed back as a business expense.
‘Offer incentives for taxi and PHV drivers to switch to greener vehicles.’
The Department for Transport (DfT) recently reaffirmed their Electric Vehicle (EV) support by detailing the different grants available to help businesses and taxi drivers shift to EV.
Taxi drivers can still claim up to £7,500 off the purchase price of a new electric taxi, however the plug-in car grant has now been dropped for the general motorist.