In defence of the London cab

A couple of weeks ago several thousand London cabbies demonstrated in and around Whitehall against what we see as a failure of TfL to enforce its regulations and treat the licensed taxi trade fairly. On the day I wrote a piece for the Guardian about why we were there which received a lot of comments that were negative about the trade generally, and I have responded to some of the more frequently recurring ones here (with one exception, that we “don’t go South of the river”, which I will address separately in a future post).

We’re too expensive

A cab from Paddington to Heathrow might cost you around £65. A standard adult single on the Heathrow Express is £26. You only need three people in that cab for it to be cheaper than the train, and that’s without taking into account the added convenience or the fact that, unless you live in Praed Street, you need to add on tube and/or bus fares and lug your bags around each time you transfer.

I accept that we’re not cheap for long journeys if you’re travelling alone, but then when in history has it ever been cheap to hire a personal driver for long journeys? We’re a lot cheaper than retaining your own chauffeur, that’s for sure.

For the shorter shorter journeys around London that are our raison d’etre we are often cheaper than minicabs, too. My sister visited recently and got a minicab from her hotel in King’s Cross to the Houses of Parliament in the morning for £23. I picked her up in my cab in the afternoon rush to take her back to her hotel and when we got there the meter was showing £15.40. The minicab was 50% more expensive than me. If the cab had been full to capacity it would have been significantly cheaper than the tube, too.

This isn’t a one-off, either. In my former life as a non-car-owning pianist I often had to use a minicab to transport equipment from my front door in Islington to a gig in the West End. Getting a black cab back from the venue on the night rate was frequently cheaper.

We’re greedy and overpaid

Even if you do think we are too expensive, bear in mind that we don’t set the rate, our regulator (TfL) does – not that I think it is too high as it happens. Just because your night rate taxi ride took ten minutes and cost £10 doesn’t mean we’re taking £60 an hour. In unlucky hours I’ve taken £5. And that’s not profit either – we spend a large proportion of our takings on diesel and either renting or buying, insuring and maintaining our vehicles. They are not cheap.

I don’t know any rich cabbies. If any are, they must be working a hell of a lot of hours. If any are comfortable, why should that bother you? It seems right and proper to me that if you slog all your life at your job you should be able to buy a home and support your family.

We’re a closed shop

One of the most wonderful things about the Knowledge of London is that absolutely anyone can do it. There are no minimum educational requirements; all you need is a driving license and to pass criminal records and medical checks. I can think of no other profession that is so egalitarian. If you come from an underprivileged background, if you failed at school for whatever reason, providing you are prepared to work hard you can become a London taxi driver and earn a reasonable living.

We’re bad drivers

I believe that London cabbies are usually excellent drivers and that people who think otherwise fail to see beyond their own preconceptions. We are a highly visible presence on London’s streets so perhaps an onlooker could be forgiven for noticing bad taxi driving disproportionately, but I would be very surprised if the percentage of other drivers involved in accidents was not higher than that of cabbies. Think about it: we pass two driving tests, we have thousands of hours of practise, our livelihoods depend on our driving licenses, and we know the territory like the backs of our hands.

We cause congestion and pollution

Say I work an eight hour shift in which I do sixteen jobs. Say an eighth of London’s cabbies are working at the same time as me and taking the same number of passengers (these are both fairly conservative estimates I would have thought). That would be 40,000 journeys being done by 5,000 vehicles. Do you really think there would be less congestion and better local air quality if those journeys were being done by private citizens in their own cars?

We’re right-wing bigots

Well I’m gay, socially liberal and politically left-wing, and I’m proud to call myself a licensed London taxi driver. There are more than 20,000 black cabs on the streets of London and they are all driven by individuals. To say we are all the same sounds pretty prejudiced to me.

And if you’re a left-winger who thinks we’re only for the rich (and a great many of my customers are rich, it’s true) then you ought to be pleased that we’re redistributing wealth. We take money from rich people, in many cases from rich foreign businessmen, and inject it into our local economies in and around London. That’s practically Communism, isn’t it?


About ianbeetlestone

Cabbie & writer
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