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London Taxis: Rancor in the Ranks

by Roger Lanctot | 2月 18, 2019

Taxi drivers across the world feel embattled – hemmed in physically by worsening traffic and financially by ride-hailing services. In London, there is a third pinch which comes from regulators eager to reduce congestion and emissions seemingly at the expense of predominantly diesel-powered London cabs.

I took five rides in London cabs last week and got the usual face full of pro-Brexit blather, anti-Uber dudgeon and regulatory blowback. I was also reminded that the drivers of London cabs, who are obliged to master (commit to memory) The Knowledge (of London’s 25,000 streets), have measurably larger brains as a result.

The brain is a complex organ. Growth in one region, the hippocampus, focused primarily on certain kinds of memory, is no guarantee of expansion in any other gray matter department. One study suggested hippocampal growth might be mitigated by a deficit elsewhere.

Last week, London taxi drivers were protesting road closures required by Transport for London (otherwise known to the drivers as Totally Failing London). TfL is seeking to limit access on Tottenham Court Road to buses while rerouting taxi traffic to surrounding streets.

The drivers scorned the decision as anti-taxi and unnecessary and hundreds of drivers gathered to make their feelings known. Taxi protests are becoming a weekly if not a daily phenomenon in London – and elsewhere.

In addition to the Tottenham Court Road beef, London cabbies continue to rail against Uber’s continued ability to operate while appealing threats of a shutdown from regulators; and increases in congestion charges have also brought thousands of drivers to the fore, occasionally blocking traffic in opposition.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell a legitimate complaint from general grumpiness. My favorite driver-complainer was actually a Ghanaian Uber driver outside London last year who indicated his support of Brexit to oppose “immigrants coming here and taking our jobs.”

When I reminded the Uber driver that he was himself an immigrant, he sheepishly noted that he had since reconsidered his vote. Most taxi drivers are similarly inclined toward Brexit – frustrated by foreigners speaking foreign languages and trying to pay with foreign currency.

The Brexit and Uber umbrage is near universal among London cab drivers, one of whom exited his cab at the end of a trip and strongly suggested – face-to-face - that I continue using only London black cabs to get around. His statement was borderline intimidating but I assured him I was sympathetic, whether or not his hippocampus was larger than mine.

London and its taxi drivers are caught in the gears of a Brexit proving even more difficult to master than London’s road network. The reasons to leave, at the time of the vote, were many. The reasons to stay were few and not well explained or understood.

According to TfL’s own survey data London taxi drivers are predominantly white and male. Their Brexit inclinations are not statistically known, but anecdotally clear.

Most London taxi drivers (met by me) complain that they live in neighborhoods where they have become the minority and where English is infrequently spoken. They often know tradesmen who have been negatively impacted by immigrants willing to cut their prices to take away business.

They’ve seen large numbers of immigrants go on public assistance and they drive past the growing array of international storefronts that have sprung up throughout London to serve an increasingly diverse population.

It’s a narrow view of the world through the windscreen of a London black cab. The view looks narrower and narrower as regulators, Uber and overall traffic close in.

They even see the world changing technologically as more than 1,000 electric cabs have now joined the fleet – costing £70,000 each, with a miserable 50-mile driving range, and no more than a couple dozen charge points. Not much that they see makes much sense and not even Brexit seems certain.

In spite of being brow-beaten by at least one cabby, I remain sympathetic to these drivers. Like taxi drivers everywhere they are expected to be familiar with their cities, they must be certified and background checked, they are obliged to pick up anyone and deliver them anywhere and, in London at least, the black cabs are nearly all wheelchair/disabled accessible.

These men and women, who themselves increasingly reflect a demographically diverse city, are worthy of respect and an advantaged regulatory regime relative to the ride-hailing usurpers. Maybe TfL will rethink its road closures and congestion charging policies and Uber sanctions – in favor of the black cabs. Nobody wants an aggravated cabby in London on the way to their next important meeting or the theater.

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