Monday, 7 December 2015

Cabbies: Tavistock Place is not what will destroy you

This is a letter to taxi drivers. 

It's not going to argue about the merits of Tavistock Place, the Embankment cycle superhighway or the other things coming. You might not like them —you may resent the fact they represent changes to the city that you cannot control, but they won't destroy you.

You face an existential threat. Britain dodged one in the Battle of Britain; humanity dodged one in the Cold War. The dinosaurs encountered one and lost. You? You run the risk of being a historical note -like the Viking colony of Greenland. More likely, the brand of the black cab will remain, just like those other icons: the routemaster bus, policemen with helmets too: something for the tourists to have on postcards and tea-towels.

What is this existential threat? If you thought "Uber" you'd be getting warm —but its more: it's the Internet and the devices attached to it.

When was the last time you popped out to rent a video or a DVD? Do you ever reminisce about going to the video rental store as you sit down in front of BBC iPlayer, Netflix, or Amazon? Do you still take photographs on a camera with a roll of film? If so —you can't take them down to a local camera shop to get printed —that shop will be gone. Along with the record shop and possibly the bookshop. 

They faced the existential threat of The Internet and lost.

Nobody set out to destroy those shops on the high street; it just happened. The new companies brought new opportunities to people, and we all embraced them; those stores were simply collateral damage. 

Thats what threatens you. Not just Uber, but the other companies building the stuff that Uber depends on. Uber needs Apple and google for the smartphones. Apple and google need users attached to their phones. Everyone driving is lost revenue, to these companies. And when you look at how much time people -especially in the US- spend in cars, that's a lot of lost revenue. And what are google working on now? Autonomous cars.

Uber are now valued at more than General Motors. That way more than if they took every single taxi journey on the planet and got 25% commission on that ride. So why the valuation? It's because Uber have general motors in their sights —along with Ford, VW/Audi, and the other car companies.

Uber have a simple ambition: to get the money everyone spends on buying and running cars. Why own one when you have a phone, and whenever you wave it, a car appears? It's the magic wand of motoring. No more need to worry about parking by your house, at your destination. No more maintaining it. And, assuming it's electric: no need to worry about range. You'll tell uber your destination, and they'll bring up a car with the range. If something goes wrong, well, Uber can send a replacement out to meet up. And it'll be their problem to worry about charging points, having vehicles ready at pickup etc.

To Uber then, you may be today's competitor —but you are a stepping stone to their greater goal: to replace today's car manufacturers.

Apple and google? They don't care about you one way or the other. But the phones, the cars they work on, the satnav maps they provide —that's the underlying technology that's threatening your business. And there's nothing you can do about that.

It's not just the scale of these companies you have to fear —it's their growing political power. The cash reserves Uber has means that they can start funding the election campaigns of US politicians. Once they do that, Taxi Licensing Authorities in the relevant cities are going to have anything they've done to block uber reversed, while legislation enabling self-driving cars gets pushed through.

In the UK, London is the big target for Uber: you've got the money, you've got the journeys, and, in the centre, an interesting mix of public transport and high-density destinations they can aim for. Your livelihoods. Get that cash flowing, keep the funders happy, destroy their direct competitors (e.g Lyft), and build a future for a transport company bigger than GM which has no drivers whatsoever.

So what can you do? How do you face down this existential threat?

That's a problem which you and your organisations —like the LTDA— have to worry about. 

It is probably the greatest threat you've ever encountered: it's got the car companies scared, and you've never managed that. 

Get together. Get out your phones and arrange a meeting —not Nokia phones, obviously— they lost to Apple and Google. Drive to that meeting past the streets that had video shops, record shops and booksellers. If you see an Uber driving in a crash, use the camera on your phone, post up the image —but spare a moment's thought to all those people who loved cameras and made a living selling them and the developing and printing business. But get together with your colleagues and work out how to survive.

Can you survive?

Maybe a better question is how long can you survive —and what help do you need to achieve this?

TfL are a possible ally. But you need a compelling vision of a real Taxi for the 21st century: one that doesn't pollute, one that recharges at taxi stands, one that is integrated in a world of booking by phone, touch to pay, co-ordinated booking systems with handoff between you and other cabbies. You might even think about changes to the pricing model.

TfL are also an enemy. It's not just their licensing of minicab drivers, or the fact that they are allowed into the city centre for near nothing, it's their sheer inertia and lack of innovation. You need to take the lead there —but it has to be compelling. "Like it was before Uber" is like a  VHS shop saying "like it was before iPlayer". That time is gone.

You might find the Uber drivers can be your allies here. They are in even more trouble than you. They're not employees of Uber: they are expenses —and there is no space for them in Uber's long-term vision. Start getting them to unionise, to demand salaries and rights, and get TfL to set those minimum standards, and maybe it will level the playing field. 

You need to keep them out the bus lanes. Uber, Google, Tesla and others have their autonomous car's LIDAR scanners scoping them out already; in their home cities, bus lane plans are on hold for this very reason.

Which brings this essay back to us: the cyclists. 

We are not the ones who will destroy your very livelihood.

You may look at changes in the city, at the Junctions of Death, along the Embankment, at Tavistock place, and elsewhere —and resent this change, a change to the city you love and which you can't control. Maybe so: but they are coming so that Londoners on bicycles can reach their destination alive.

None of those cyclists are building autonomous cars with a vision of taking over from the car companies, crushing your business as a stepping stone or a mere side-effect of the vision.

Protest about the changes if you want. Put money into a lawsuit over a conversion of what was essentially coach parking into a safe mass transport option if it makes you feel better. Complain about the cyclists whenever you get a journalist, a councillor or an MP in the back of the vehicle. Go to TfL and try to bully them into changing their plans. But in doing so, you are not only getting distracted from what really is going to destroy you: you are using up money, time and political capital which you need for your fight for your very survival

Maybe, just maybe, cyclist could even be allies.

Do you think we are happy that autonomous driving tests don't seem to include cyclists? Do you think we are happy that Nissan and Tesla want their car in bus lanes? Do you think, as we cycle round Westminster looking for one of its six cycle racks that we are pleased to see recharge docks in a part of the city where the congestion charge exempts them?

At the same time: we want to set off on a journey knowing we will get their alive. We want our children to be able to cycle to school and not worry about them. We will fight tooth-and-nail to preserve what little bits of safe infrastructure TfL and some of the councils are slowly adding to the city. Because we know what matters to us: our lives


  1. Powerful stuff - professional drivers of any type should heed your advice.

  2. Good article , I think myself and all taxi drivers are finished but it's bigger than that we are all finished and in 10 years we will all work for one of ten companies that own everything and get paid buttons for the privilege , when Uber PR chief is godparent to the prime ministers kids and vice versa and boris's brother works for main Uber investor Goldman Sachs there is very little anyone can do , unless we all vote Corbyn and hope for a better world

  3. 1. "Unknown": you are being fucking fatalistic. Too bad you are telling the truth.

    Self-driving cars are essentially the first robots in the city. They will start on the motorways as assistants, maybe allowing truck drivers to get a nap: at first it will appear as a benefit. Then as the features expands, there'll be less truck drivers. Given that that is the job which is #1 in many US states -that's going to be traumatic.

    In britain, anyone who drives for a living needs to worry. self-employed cabbies do at least lack the problem Uber drivers have: their "employers" funding the work to make them unemployed. But the tech is coming, and as the classic car companies are struggling to catch up with google and tesla, it's going to ship in 5 years, first in the high end mercedes, BMW 7-series, but slowly trickling down.

    society hasn't begun to think of the implications yet