Mark Ritson: Here’s a tip for cabbies – compete, don’t strike

I don’t know much about industrial action but the taxi blockade of London last week to protest against car app Uber was about as misplaced as it gets.


Members of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) should hang their heads in shame, not only because their actions were a huge annoyance for thousands of British people, but also because the blockade was a classic example of how not to react to a disruptive technology.

Bringing the busiest parts of London to a standstill on a Wednesday afternoon runs directly counter to what black cabs are meant to stand for. Yes, I know the Tube drivers’ union strikes on a regular basis, but that’s because there is no competition for the Circle Line and they can get away with their stupidity. Black cabs have genuine competitors and the more they appear to be opposed to free flowing movement around London, the more hurt they do themselves and their livelihood.

Protests that stop your regular customers from patronising you while drawing attention to your new competitor are not a good thing in general. Imagine if Tesco had closed all its supermarkets for a day to protest at the arrival of Aldi into the UK in 1990. All it would have achieved is to piss off Tesco shoppers and alert them to Aldi. The same is true of the cab drivers’ mistaken action. Most of the (relatively) switched-on Londoners I work with had yet to hear of, let alone use, Uber until last week’s industrial action. Uber recorded an 850 per cent increase in downloads of its app during the protest – need I say more?

And if you are going to protest about something, at least find a proper axe to grind. We were told a vast array of porkies last week to explain exactly why the LTDA was blocking most of central London, but none of the points had any validity. We were told that Uber cars were illegally using a form of taximeter – they’re not. We were told the strike was to highlight the years of training black cab drivers need to undergo to gain their licence. Awesome, but the advent of satnav means this incredible knowledge is being consigned to history. We were told it was a strike about unreliable and unregistered drivers, but Uber has pointed out that all its drivers have passed TfL’s most stringent audits.

It took actual cab drivers last Wednesday to reveal the actual reason for the protest. As Bernie Doyle, a 68-year-old black cab driver told the BBC: “If Paris, Milan and Berlin don’t accept it, why should we? I’ve been driving for 42 years and I’m not about to see my trade go down the pan.”

With respect to Bernie and his fellow black cab drivers, this is no way to respond to competition. It’s not 1972 any more and downing tools will only speed your extinction – ask the miners. You can’t beat 21st century competitors with tactics born half a century ago.

What the black cab industry should do is take a long hard look at itself and its new competitor Uber. Unlike many other cities the London taxi industry is superbly well run. As a regular user of both services I can tell you, hands down, that a black cab’s value, efficiency and availability beat the pants off Uber any day – a fact recently confirmed by a study from The Wall Street Journal.

WSJ taxi journey comparison
Image courtesy of WSJ. Amid the controversy over Uber in London, three WSJ reporters set out from their bureau near Fleet Street for the Shard, London’s tallest skyscraper. They compared fare, time and route during rush hour, taken by a black cab (which they hailed using Hailo) a chauffeur service and an Uber-hailed mini-cab.

So why use Uber in London? Alas the vast majority – yes, majority – of black cabs will not accept credit cards. Why not? I will leave this to the reader’s imagination but cash in hand businesses have certain accounting advantages over those that use recorded transactions. Those of us using cabs for work either have to keep a wad of cash on our persons at all times and a huge stash of unruly white receipts, or we switch to Uber and the painless exit from a cab at journey’s end, safe in the knowledge that the fare has automatically been charged to a work credit card.

I’ve spent my life giving tips to black cab drivers, so here’s one for free – sort out your credit card payment systems, stop strong-arming London and start bloody competing. And if you make me miss another meeting with your stupid medieval bullshit I am Ubering forever.

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