Black cab protest: beware the evil app!

Yesterday, over 10,000 ‘black cab’ taxi drivers descended on central London to blockade the roads in protest against the taxi app service, Uber. The protest was organised by the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) and was supported by other industry groups such as the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) and the London Cab Drivers Club (LCDC).

The protesters insisted that Uber and similar apps are sidestepping regulation and ‘effectively’ providing a hail-down and metered taxi service, something only licensed ‘black cabs’ are allowed to practise under current British regulations. Uber provides commuters with a bird’s-eye view of available cars for private hire, calculates the fare of their journey and books a cab immediately. The app also handles the payment electronically, meaning that no exchange of cash is required between passenger and driver.

Outrage was first sparked when Transport for London (TfL) granted Uber a private-hire license. The cabbies insist that Uber is effectively offering a black-cab service with none of the proper regulation. TfL has sought to pass on the dispute to the High Court in the hope that a pro-Uber judgement can be reached.

This is a classic clash between new technology and an outdated business model. ‘The Knowledge’, the requirement that London cabbies learn every street and landmark in inner London, was rendered obsolete by GPS technology. The only barrier protecting black cabs from competition was the regulation concerning hail-down taxi services. Now that apps like Uber have successfully bypassed this regulation, it looks like time is being called on ‘black cab’ drivers’ privileged position in the market.

Recognising that protectionist arguments alone wouldn’t win much support, Steve McNamara, a representative of the LDTA and a leading figure of the protest, insisted that, in allowing Uber to operate unregulated, TfL’s actions were ‘dangerous for Londoners’. This focus on safety has become a recurring argument in transport strike action. Rather than trying to win the public over to their cause, groups like the LTDA and RMT prefer to try and scare them onside. But this tactic only reflects disdain for the public: in this case, Londoners’ ability to calculate risk when using private-hire taxi services. 

In the end, the protest served only to infuriate Londoners. It seems likely that the High Court will rule in favour of TfL and further damage the demand for ‘black cabs’. But by clutching to an outdated business model and relying on scaremongering arguments to make their point, the cabbies have only helped dig their own grave.

Rob Harries is a writer and researcher based in London.

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