Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Why Not Demand Less Taxi Regulation, Not More?

Yes, this is one of DP's occasional transport geekery posts, so look away now if it's not your bag.

Being in transport myself, I just couldn't let the recent palaver surrounding Uber pass without comment as I've found it extremely interesting in the past few months. My transport news sources have been mentioning this growing dispute for a while now, and it's come up in Transport for London email bulletins too, but with London Taxi drivers planning a hissy fit on Wednesday, the BBC - especially - has gone to town on the story this week.

I speak as someone who usually has some sympathy with black cabbies since a relative is one and I've written before about how they are hamstrung by regulations. My problem with their response to Uber, though, is that they are going about it in entirely the wrong way ... oh yeah, and being disingenuous to boot.

The whole story seems to be about a painful - but necessary and well overdue - readjustment of a failing market. The failure having been caused mostly by a) the black cab industry historically arguing for an uneven playing field, and b) by regulators indulging them before imposing additional regulations, both of which have conspired to ease Uber's entry into the market.

Black cab drivers are the only service in London to be able to be called a "taxi"; they are the only ones to be able to pick up fares from the street without a booking; only black cabs are allowed to carry advertising; minicab firms are not even allowed to advertise their own company in London except on the back window; black cabs can run vehicles for 15 years, minicabs only for 10; and only black cabs can carry a meter to calculate the fare.

All these privileges are enshrined in regulations which have been applauded by London Taxi drivers going back many decades. When minicabs as we know them first hit the streets in the 60s, they were unlicensed so the differentiation made sense. However in the 1990s - when minicabs began asking for a regulatory regime of their own to counteract perceived problems with safety of passengers - the taxi drivers' union were not keen and resisted because they knew it was the start of a long slippery slope which could result in, well, what is happening right now. Serious competition.

So it's incredibly rich to read this as an argument from a black taxi driver in a BBC article today.
From the comfort of his black cab, Lloyd Baldwin begs to differ. "We're not afraid of competition. We've faced competition from minicabs for 40 years." 
But in this case, Mr Baldwin believes the competition is not on a level playing field.
No, it's not. The competition has been handicapped over the years deliberately, with black taxis employing special pleading to demand regulators bow to their wishes. The competition has been stifled and held back while the market - that being what people want from a service - has long since shifted. With strict regulation of minicabs such as vehicle inspections, CRB checks, driver and operator licensing, and searchable online databases, there is no longer any safety angle for the black cab trade to cling to.

Not that they'll try, of course. An article in the Guardian reports an extraordinary - and incorrect - claim by the black cab trade.
Black cab and licensed taxi drivers in London claim Uber enables users to contact unlicensed drivers who haven't faced safety checks.
It isn't getting any sympathy from Guardian readers either, which is telling if you consider that they are usually the most welcoming of state regulations, but even they recognise that the game is up for a strange London anachronism propped up by out-of-date corporate protectionism.

This leaves black cab drivers with just two fig leaves to justify their plan to clog up London streets in protest tomorrow, and they don't make any sense either. In fact, they are so backward-thinking as to be laughable.
The issue at stake is whether Uber's use of the smartphone equates to a taximeter, a talismanic object for black cab drivers, which they feel only they have the right to use.
This is the meter that minicabs are not entitled to use because taxi drivers argued for years that they were the only ones with detailed knowledge of the capital.
Twenty years ago, he explains, when mobile phones were still uncommon objects, he invested three very tough years of his life learning to become a black-cab driver. He devoted long hours to learning The Knowledge, the fabled test of a driver's memory of London's sprawling streets
Twenty years ago, that was probably useful. But this is 2014, mobile phones are ubiquitous and we have GPS now. A tourist on his first ever visit to London can find his way around the city in a hire car, so it's a redundant skill. And if no knowledge is needed to find the quickest way through London's streets, there is no reason for meters to be the sole preserve of the black cab trade ... the customer can see the correct route on a mobile phone, calculate the fare for themselves, and even track it from a different location on the internet if they choose.

And this is my problem. If London Taxi drivers are truly not scared of competition and want to compete, instead of demanding further restrictions on their competitors, why not scream blue murder about the massive amount of regulation they are bound by and demand it be lessened? Or, as Crampton once put it.
It's like a bunch of folks on the scaffolds complaining that the other guy's noose isn't quite tight enough. Y'all might instead direct your attention to the hangman sometime and try helping each other cut those ropes.
A good start, perhaps, could be for black cabbies to insist that they get to choose their own vehicle instead of being restricted to a few approved suppliers where basic prices start at over £30k.

It will be a new experience for them after decades of banking on regulations for protected status, but it is surely better for all concerned than trying to stem the tide of progress by calling the unions in to demand bans and antiquated red tape to nobble their 21st century competitors.

Coincidentally, I'm up in London tomorrow for a trade association briefing about even more new regulations - the bane of our industry - being imposed by the government. The venue is only just over a mile from the tube station but usually costs about £8 in a black cab. I'd like to try comparing with an Uber taxi but seeing as the roads look likely to be gridlocked, I'll probably just walk it on this occasion.


Sam Duncan said...

To quote the Hitchhikers' Guide, “I'll tell you what the problem is, mate. Demarcation, that's the problem”. It's our old chum from when we were the Sick Man of Europe, back to haunt us. Why should licenced black cab drivers have a monopoly on using devices that meter charges based on distance travelled? Who died and made them the Gods of the Taximeter? (And so much for this unfettered neo-liberal free market we keep hearing about.)

“You can't do that! That's a cabman's job! Everybody out!”

Bah. The hell with 'em.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

The regs on London taxis go back hundreds of years and have evolved to protect their exclusivity. That's all well and good as they have gotten away with it, but being beholden to state regs carries a burden in itself as I think they are noticing now they are hopelessly uncompetitive and left with little to defend themselves.

This is perhaps why tomorrow's protest does have a whiff of the 1970s about it, you're right.

PeterA5145 said...

An interesting aspect of this debate is that (as in many other fields) the media assume London is like the rest of the country, when in fact it is very different. Everywhere else, private hire vehicles are allowed to use meters and there don't seem to be any significant restrictions on advertising.

nisakiman said...

Black cabs do seem inordinately expensive nowadays. When I was living in London in the 80s, I thought nothing of hailing a cab. Ok, it cost more than the tube, but cabs were not the preserve of the wealthy.

I was in Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand) earlier this year, and while fuel is cheaper than UK, the cost of a cab (metered) for a distance equivalent, say, from Shepherd's Bush to Picadilly was about a pound. Yes, wages are lower and fuel is cheaper, but that is a massive difference. What would a black cab cost for that trip?

True Brit said...

Who the hell gives a anus rodentum about London and it's cabs,a more critical issue being ,how can a real normal Englishman live in the slop pot
of the Western World. London is now a gigantic albatross around the withering neck of England,The blood of a more noble England is being sucked by this
oversized Metropolitan Leech crawling with grasping vermin and choking with
freaks ,two bit spivs ,freeloaders,parasites,perverts and rotting politicians.
Maybe the time is ripe for the Regions to join Scotland and desert this hub of
depravity and decadence before our Island becomes another landfill.

JonathanBagley said...

The cabbies don't appear to have a leg to stand on. Uber is a computer mini cab firm which takes a far smaller proportion of the fare as commission than do traditional mini cab firms and there is nothing to stop a mini cab driver agreeing to a fare calculated on a customer's mobile phone, which is not a mini cab taximeter. In my experience you can negotiate with them in any way you choose.