1. Transport
February 10, 2016updated 03 Aug 2023 2:36pm

Cab drivers: blocking London roads won't drum up our sympathy

By Barbara Speed

London’s black cab drivers are, too put it politely, annoyed. 

In their eyes, the rise of car hire firms, and in particular apps like Uber, are undercutting their prices and putting them at risk. A Knowledge training centre, where cabbies are tested on their geographical nous, has been threatened with closure partly due to falling demand.

A recent ruling by TfL on the issues surrounding Uber (whether they in fact count as taxis, since they use a kind of metred approach to pricing, for example) eventually gave it pretty much free reign. Cabbies had called for measures including a mandated five minute wait before an Uber picked up a passenger; but all that’s changed in practice is that drivers must have English lessons and will no longer be exempt from the congestion charge.

Mayor Boris Johnson commented after the ruling that you “can’t turn the clock back on technological progress”, which implies that he, like me, thinks the five minute wait suggestion is a little like making the early automobiles crawl behind a man with a red flag, to ensure they didn’t go too fast. 

Then there’s tax. A particular bugbear for cab drivers is the fact that Uber pays its tax through the Netherlands, not the UK: a recently circulated stat asserts that four cab drivers pay more tax than the whole of Uber in the UK. 

To protest against these various woes, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) has once again declared a strike – or, as one cabbie described it in the Guardian, “a campaign of civil disobedience”. Today, around 5,000 cabbies were predicted to join together to block streets around Whitehall. It’s working:

The tweet from political blogger Mike Smithson shows red traffic alerts on streets throughout central London, apparently as a result of the strike.  

My instinct is that this won’t drum up the support cab drivers perhaps expect. Tube strikes, which also brought London to a standstill, provoked anger and frustration, but you could also see that the drivers were simply demonstrating their point: that they are indispensable public service, and should be treated as such.

Cabs are a part of London’s history, but they’re not indispensable: they’re a product, which people can buy or not buy as they choose. No cabs in London would be annoying, but not a disaster, which is why the drivers have apparently decided to block roads rather than conduct a strike in the usual way. 

If Uber and other car hire firms can offer similar service for lower prices within UK laws, then it’s hard as an outsider to see why they shouldn’t: in fact, to say so is practically anti-competition. 

Trevor Merralls, the cab driver who wrote about the strike in the Guardian yesterday, makes a fair point when he argues that Uber should pay UK tax, and thereby make the playing field a little more even. But beyond that, it’s every car for itself. 

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