London’s Black Cab Drivers Fear for Their Future

LONDON ~ For decades, London’s black cabs have been as much an emblem of the city as Buckingham Palace or Big Ben – but now their drivers fear the industry is under threat.

The problem, they say, is minicabs – ordinary-looking cars licensed to take advance bookings over the telephone or the Internet, while traditional black cabs pick up customers who hail them on the street.

With the recession already hurting business, frustrations have come to a head over proposals by airport authorities to let some minicabs take bookings from passengers arriving at Heathrow.

Black cabbies say this would damage their trade and highlights a wider problem of minicabs encroaching on their turf, particularly in the buzzing West End entertainment district.

“What to do about minicab drivers? I could tell you, but it might be a bit medieval. Burning, tarring, public execution,” said one black cab driver, stopping for an afternoon cup of tea at one of London’s 19th-century cabmen’s shelters near the River Thames.

He took part in a protest in February when black cab drivers blocked Trafalgar Square and says “the same thing will happen again and again and again” if the authorities do not help black cabs.

“We think we’re going to go the way of the Routemaster buses and red telephone boxes,” said another driver, referring to two other London icons which are now largely obsolete.

Both cabbies asked not to be named, with one citing fear of reprisals from rival drivers.

But minicab firms hit back, saying black cabs are increasingly outdated, while new technology like satellite navigation systems – known as sat navs – means minicabs can do a similar job more cheaply and with minimal training.

“The taxi trade’s got to be careful because if they don’t move on, they will die,” said John Griffin, founder and chairman of Addison Lee, London’s biggest minicab firm, which could operate at Heathrow if the plan goes through.

He says black cabs could learn lessons from his firm, which is proud of hi-tech innovations like a multi-million pound booking system which sends customers text messages automatically when their car is on its way and arrives.

London’s black cabs were voted the best in the world in a recent survey and much of their reputation rests on their drivers’ navigational expertise.

All black cabbies must pass “the knowledge,” a test of their familiarity with city streets which typically requires several years’ study.

But now, advances in sat nav mean that minicab drivers who do not have “the knowledge” can get directions and traffic information simply by pressing a few buttons.

This means minicabs – which were only licensed in London in 2002 and number around 50,000, compared to roughly half that for black cabs – are increasingly competitive.

This shows on any Friday or Saturday night in the West End as revellers spill out of bars, restaurants and clubs late at night when most public transport is closed.

While many people try to hail black cabs off the street, others reserve a minicab through a cab firm employee stationed within a venue and step right into a vehicle parked outside.

Black cabbies say this legal practice is hitting their trade and claim some minicabs are going further by illegally picking up customers who hail them on the street.

“We’ve got hoards of private hire vehicles on the streets, touting for business with no enforcement and, to be honest, it will be the demise of the world famous London taxi service,” said Grant Davis, chairman of the London Cab Drivers’ Club, which represents around 1,500 London black cabbies.

“With the recession, cabbies have become more militant.

“Private hire work has diminished and the only work they can go for is us, so they go out on the street.”

Insiders talk of skirmishes between black cabbies and minicab drivers, while some black cabbies have taken to posting online photographs of rivals they accuse of illegal touting.

Davis warns his members are worried about the Heathrow plans and could be ready to take direct action to secure their livelihoods.

“Something’s going to give. We had the demo in February and I believe, speaking to my members, if nothing’s done pretty soon, then (that) is going to be repeated on maybe a daily basis,” he said.

Transport for London, the body responsible for the British capital’s public transport system, stressed it was “determined to crack down on illegal taxi touts” and said both minicabs and black cabs provide a “high-quality” service.

Steve Wright of the Licensed Private Hire Car Association, which represents minicabs, said most illegal touts were not licensed minicab drivers but acknowledged more needed to be done to tackle the issue.

He too suggested black cabs need to move with the times.

“I think that many will smile in 20 years’ time when you tell them that once, not so long ago, you had to go out in the street and hope a taxi was passing by with an orange light on,” he said.

“Real time tracking and booking systems will replace this game of chance and you won’t have to go outside in hope.”

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