Recently I went to see the summer blockbuster film Jurassic World. Coming out of the cinema it occurred to me that the film was a perfect metaphor for the demise of the London cab trade and with it what many regard as the gold standard for the world’s taxis. Thirty years ago there was no viable competition to the black cab and given its dominance customs and practices flourished in the trade.
[T]hriving cab ranks where punters outnumbered available vehicles. The Green Shelters, a perfect forum to voice opinions while taking a welcome break. The London Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) who translated those opinions into action, but in reality had little to do as the trade was self-governing.
The radio circuits run by members for their members. A plethora of small garages servicing the vehicles, not always cheaply, but always available on demand when a problem arose so you were soon back on the road, or back in the Green Shelter.
You had vendors selling all the sundries needed: signage, receipt pads, account books, coin dispensers. Selling maps to light bulbs, you name it, somewhere in his multi-pocketed waistcoat the man walking down the rank had what you needed.
Companies renting and servicing the meters; specialists in retailing only cab tyres, repairing gearboxes, or cab auto electricians. A host of companies obtaining advertisers needing to promote their company’s product on the sides of London cabs.
Knowledge Schools teaching the thousands who every year who applied to undertake studying, for what still remains one of the hardest to achieve in the world. And of course the manufacturers of the iconic black cab which has been sold around the world.
Seemingly overnight this industry, with its attendant suppliers of goods and services has collapsed.
Gone the way of Gamages, the red telephone box, Fleet Street newspapers, the London docks, much of London’s markets with their suppliers like Gardner’s disappearing, or the blue police call box now only seen in Dr. Who.
Once you could fill up with diesel in central London but with property prices soaring most have closed. Remarkably the Waverton Street station in Mayfair catering almost exclusively for cabs only closed a decade ago, the site must have been worth millions.
Unlike the dinosaurs our demise has been a long time coming – death by a thousand cuts if you like.
First the mini-cab, an old vehicle driven by someone with limited English and very limited knowledge of London’s geography. Usually with an aerial affixed to the roof, you had to be very drunk, or desperate, to use their services. Seeing an opening large companies supplied a complete ‘package’ to drivers; providing vehicles, satnavs, mobiles, and sometimes even clothing. Those companies at that time were very efficient at attracting accounts and proved to be the first real threat to the black cabs’ monopoly.
Rickshaws soon followed becoming a minor irritant, but never a realistic threat to one’s livelihood.
By now you would have thought that the trade, which by then had swelled to over 20,000 would become united and fight off the competition. Instead over half of drivers didn’t even belong to a trade association carrying on in the manner of cabbies in better times past.
London’s road network then started to be altered. The old ‘rat runs’ learned by rote on the Knowledge which gave us an advantage over less informed drivers were slowly blocked off due to pedestrianisation, cycle lanes, CrossRail or just at the whim of local councils. This meant that traffic was funnelled into the capital’s main arteries that any fool could follow.
The fatal blow has been the ubiquitous smart phone. Hardly surprising that we weren’t ahead of the curve as there are three times as many taxi drivers over 70 years of age as there are under 30 years of age. In fact in 2013 the average age for a cabbie was 52 among London’s Licensed Cab Drivers.
Today to meet the demands made by American app Uber, the London Cab Driver’s blog Taxi Leaks claims that Transport for London has issued 20-30,000 additional licences. While official figures make for grim reading. May saw a 50 per cent reduction in new cab registrations compared to May 2014 and it gets worse. The total number of drivers licensed fell again in May to 25,116, down 466 from May 2014. This means for the first time in a generation the trade is experiencing a net loss of 10 drivers a week.
The Office for National Statistics have said in the first quarter this year the economy has expanded by 0.3 per cent, you don’t need to be a student of John Maynard Keynes to realise that in London there are too many drivers chasing an ever smaller customer base.
We cabbies are on course to become a tourist attraction, much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic World, and not a vital part of the capital’s transport infrastructure.
Photo: Ms Sara Kelly Black cab scrap yard on Three Colts Lane near Bethnal Green overground station. This road has lots of Londo