Rollercoaster cab ride

As we say farewell to 2012 as someone who spends his day driving or writing about London all I can say is this year has been an incredible rollercoaster ride these last 12 months.

January started with a new study on cabbies’ brains. University College of London continued research following on from earlier work done in America.

[C]omparing the brains of taxi drivers with non-taxi drivers. ULC’s work confirmed that indeed London cabbies do in fact have larger brains after the period of study to achieve the Knowledge.

No sooner had we stopped patting ourselves on the back a letter delivered by the postman took the smug grins from our faces. Transport for London had decreed that cabs should have identifiers, similar to private hire, displayed on our windows. What wasn’t general knowledge was the size of display; you could almost see a cabbie’s badge number from the International Space Station.

This was soon followed by the planning authority for the Olympic rejoicing in the name ‘London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ disclosing that they had positioned the nearest cab stand over half-a-mile from the stadium. When questioned on how we could access the rank located on Homerton Road we were told that it entailed only a few miles detour to gain access via a plethora of small streets.

Still our spirits were lifted with the celebration for Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee it made you very proud to be a part of the greatest city in the world. Added to that it rained all day so any cabbie working that day received the added bonus that rain always brings.

By the end of June the long awaited Bomber Command memorial was unveiled at Hyde Park Corner and London cabbies, as is often the tradition with servicemen, provided 1,500 free cabs to ferry veterans wishing to attend.

Things really started to look up in July. We were to be allowed into the Olympic Lane on Park Lane, but only to pick-up and set-down but still that avoided being hit from behind by a bus when stationary in the middle of an 8-lane dual carriageway.

Hot on the heels came the disclosure that a new cab was being developed by Lotus cars badged the ‘Metrocab’. That would make three types of vehicle available to cabbies and with increased competition would bring down the price of new cabs.

Just like buses, good news comes along together, when another announcement a week later we received news that Nissan was developing a ‘global taxi’, which already had been adopted in New York as their taxi of choice. With all the competition set to bring down the cost of a new taxi below £35,000, we were jumping up and down like pubescent schoolgirls at a Justin Bieber concert.

This euphoria was short lived for at the start of the Olympics restaurants were reporting a 70 per cent drop in covers. An estimated 1.5 million Londoners worked from home and for cabbies some days it was costing more in diesel to drive around London than they were earning in fares.

Hotel owners were offering cabbies ‘a drink’ to bring tourists to their premises and London for 3 weeks resembled a town in a Spaghetti Western with deserted streets waiting for the baddies to show up.

The Olympics over it didn’t take long before it was officially announced that there was just too many cabs on the road and a moratorium on issuing new suburban badges would be enforced.

Tourists started to return to London during August and hey! The sun shone (between the showers) and Cabbie World was started to look up. It wasn’t long before rumours started to circulate that the firm building the iconic cab was in financial difficulties. By late October London Taxi Company had gone into administration after finding a £2 million hole in their balance sheet.

Furthermore cabs performing inexplicable u-turns could now be put down to a steering fault found in over 300 of the newest model, these cabs had to be withdrawn from service. This was in addition to 700 15-year-old Fairways due to be withdrawn from service in compliance with the dictats of Transport for London.

It has certainly been a roller coaster of a year for London’s cabbies. During the run up to Christmas – our busiest period – no vehicles were available to rent, and your humble scribe spent one week with the winter sickness bug along with one million others.

So what of 2013? Will the Olympics bring the much vaulted boost to London’s economy? Will the iconic London cab be saved at the 11th hour or will the fleet be set to look just like any other city in the world?

Whatever happens London will still be the most vibrant, diverse and interesting city on the planet – with or without the black cab.

Thank you for taking the time to read my analysis of the year and I wish you all a Happy New Year. Never had Samuel Johnson’s words rang more true:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

3 thoughts on “Rollercoaster cab ride”

  1. Thought you might like to see this story from my forthcoming biography of my great-grandparents (btw, thanks for the lovely long piece on the cabbies’ shelters, incl my great-g/father’s pic and the Russell Square story – I don’t know if his plaque is still missing since the restoration). The following story is extract/rewrite from their own autobiography:

    ‘Rides in London cabs could often be perilous. One day Marie hired a cab to take her home to Lambeth, south of the river. The man was apparently drunk and he drove his unfortunate horse like a maniac. Setting off at an alarming speed, they tore through the streets, terrifying passers-by and his passenger alike. Crossing the river at Vauxhall Bridge, in those days a toll-bridge, the cab flew through the toll without a pause, leaving the toll-keeper shouting after them in vain. Marie became ‘resigned to the fact that the horse, man, cab, and myself would very soon be smashed’ but somehow she was deposited at home in one piece: ‘My thankfulness when I found myself not only safe, but sound, was indescribable!’ She gave a distressing description of another cab horse. ‘It could scarcely crawl. The cab was a wretched, broken-down thing and …. the horse was rickety too, but showed a desire to do his best, poor creature.’ (This was twelve years before the publication of Black Beauty which highlighted the plight of the unfortunate working horses of London with its heartrending story of the poor, broken Ginger, who after years as a cab horse on the London streets, ended her miserable, overworked life pulling a heavily-laden cart when she could no longer draw a cab.) The driver of the cab Marie described was a very old, very deaf man and the poor old horse plodded along a circuitous route through unfamiliar, narrow backstreets. Becoming anxious she hung out of the window and shouted to the driver, to no avail as he didn’t hear a word. Eventually she stuck her umbrella out of the window and prodded him with it, shouting that he was going the wrong way. He stopped, threw down his reins and turning around said, ‘Look ‘ere, Miss, I’ll get inside and you can jump on the box.’ Once again, she was greatly relieved to reach home in one piece.’

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    1. Thank you for your comment and great story from the past. Next time I’m in Russell Square I will check out the plaque of your great-grandfather and get back to you.

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    2. Thanks. I’m glad that it seems I clicked the right boxes to send you my story. I wasn’t at all sure that I had done it right! It would be great if you would have a look when you are in Russell Square. It would be such a shame if this little piece of London’s heritage should be lost.
      Regards, Caroline

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