The licensing system for Black Cabs in London was created in 1662. It remains largely unchanged. Yes, the vehicle standards have changed and the extent of “The Knowledge” has grown to respond to the changing face of our great city, but the basic structure is still the same. Are you a competent person; is your vehicle suitable, do you know your way around London.
However, life has moved on a bit since the seventeenth century and with the huge acceleration of technology, particularly in the past ten years, as smartphones and apps have come to play such a huge role in the way people access and use services, the Black Cab trade needs to embrace change in order to survive.
As Mayor of London, I will do everything I can to help drivers to do so, because standing at the side of the road taking selfies, while the icon that is the Black Cab dies, would be unconscionable.
Competition from Private Hire operators using apps is not going to go away. It would be foolish to think so and being bought off for a few years by political gestures from the current Mayor is just kicking the can down the road. We cannot continue to support a model that isn’t working for drivers or for customers. And the current model for the operation of Black Cabs clearly isn’t working, or why are so many customers choosing to use Private Hire vehicles instead?
London is growing. It will soon have 9m residents and Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and the current Mayor have all pursued policies to reduce the use of private vehicles. That’s sensible and logical because it simply isn’t possible to build enough road space to allow everybody to drive. So the use of shared services, whether that’s a short-term hire model for personal use through car clubs or the use of Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles is only going to grow.
That’s why simply restricting the number of licenses issued for PHV use isn’t a sustainable answer. Black Cabs should be competing in this growing market on a much more level playing field. This is what I will do as Mayor to make that happen.
Since the Conservatives on the London Assembly, under my leadership, wrote “Saving an Icon”, the Black Cab trade has moved to embrace card payments and the use of hailing apps. MyTaxi allows customers to plan ahead and book a Black Cab at a moment’s notice, rather than standing in the street in hope – something a young woman late at night might not want to do. These are welcome steps forward, but we need to go further.
I see three key areas where the Mayor can support Black Cabs.
The first is regulation. All Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles are regulated by TfL. And TfL is failing. I would separate the licensing function of TfL from its operational and investment arms and have this separate body subject to separate oversight by the London Assembly. Whilst it is a matter for the Assembly to decide how to do this, I would hope they would see the sense of inviting the LTDA to have a seat on that oversight committee.
I would then look to change the specific regulations for drivers. The Knowledge, admirable a skill though it us, is an outdated concept. My mum was a book-keeper for the NHS. She could run her eyes down a column of figures and give the total, accurate to the penny, in a second. We now have Excel spreadsheets which do that for everybody.
In the age of sat-navs with real-time traffic updates and re-routing options, which cover the whole of London, not just that part of it within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, it simply isn’t needed. Black cab drivers shouldn’t have to take three years and spend three times as much as somebody getting a PHV license doing the equivalent of a degree to get their license And with over 70% of those taking it failing, that’s a terrible waste of the investment of personal time and money for those who do. That no other city in the world requires this level of detailed knowledge used to be a badge of honour, but as technology has moved on, it is now holding back those who want to join the ranks of the best drivers in the world.
So I would require no more topographical knowledge of Black Cab drivers than are required of any PHV driver. The current test may need reviewing, so an appropriate, standard test can be applied to all applicants, and a standard for the type of navigation system used may also be necessary, but the requirement for the Knowledge as it is today would go when I am Mayor.
I also want Black Cab drivers to embrace flexible fares. The current regulations set a minimum fare and a maximum mileage related rate. There is significant flexibility between those two figures and as the market for Taxi and PHV rides expands, Black Cabs need to move with the times and embrace the flexible fares that make the PHV operators model more attractive to many customers, if they want to capture a fair share of that growing market.
Finally, I want to accelerate the change of the Black Cab fleet to zero-emission vehicles as part of a drive to clean up London.
At the same time as threatening a blanket tax on older vehicles driving within the North and South Circular roads with the expansion of the ULEZ in 2021 – which, by the way, I would scrap - our current Mayor has exempted Black Cabs from this charge, currently operating within the Congestion Charge zone, for twelve years. This leaves many of the most polluting vehicles, whilst still legally on the road, operating in the most polluted parts of London. This is dreadfully unambitious.
I want to work with the LTDA to identify the places where rapid electric charging points, possibly reserved only for Black Cabs, can be installed to accelerate the move away from diesel. As an interim measure I would like TfL to offer loans to Black Cab drivers who want to convert from diesel to LPG, which is far less polluting and offers lower running costs, from which the loans can be repaid. This might be especially useful to Black Cab drivers operating in the suburbs, where it is much harder to quickly develop a comprehensive network of charging points.
Under the current Mayor, Black Cabs are dying a slow death. Sadiq Khan thinks he can buy you off for a few years and then when he’s gone, it will be too late.
When I am Mayor, Black Cabs will have a future. They will have a fair share of a growing market. They will offer the flexible fares that customers want. They will have oversight on the system that regulates them. They will have embraced hailing and sat-nav technology and they will be the clean, green vehicles London needs – though they will of course still be Black Cabs!