Those of us who dwell around 158 miles from Euston have been – thus far – blissfully unaware of the rumblings caused in London by the arrival of San Francisco based Uber, which claims to “connect riders with drivers” via a smartphone app. You use the app, you pre-pay, a car appears, you get transported from A to B. Simples. Except, in the capital, nothing is that simple.
The London taxi has to be accessible, one of a range of features not offered by supposed competitors
How London got to the place it is in now with black cabs and minicabs is a long and complex story, but it comes down to the former – which can be hailed on the street and may use taxi ranks at major stations and elsewhere – being strictly regulated for purposes of safety, driver suitability, and, best-known, The Knowledge. The London cabby must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s streets.
Minicabs and their drivers are also regulated, but not to the same degree, and again, there is a good reason for this: fitness for purpose of both vehicle and driver, and a need to be able to assure the punters of their safety, whatever hour of the day or night they travel. All of this may not be the norm in San Francisco – or, indeed, any large city in the USA. This, though, does not deter the ideologically minded.
Yes, the ruckus between cabbies and Uber is, like so much else, being turned into a right-versus-left battle, one of alleged freedom versus supposed servitude. To no surprise, this is the take of the perpetually thirsty Paul Staines and his rabble at the Guido Fawkes blog, who have concluded “Unions buy Labour support in London taxi wars”. Why bother to be knowledgeable when you can remain ignorant?
Take this magnificent slice of drivel: “Guido understands that the GMB union has infiltrated the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the black cabbies’ trade union, to lobby politicians against Uber”. That’s a straight-A f*** right off in one: the LTDA needs no lessons on organisation or lobbying. London’s cabbies are the premier example of closed-shop protectionism. They manage this by themselves, thanks.
The Fawkes folks’ pals at the Institute of Directors (IoD) have taken a similar tack: “it makes sense for the regulations to adapt to a changing market and changing customer expectations ... the UK’s regulatory framework has been overtaken by digital innovation and, in some areas, is no longer fit for purpose”. And, as Jon Stewart might have said, two things here.
One, cabbies work to the rules: they do not make them. And two, despite the claims made by Uber, all they are offering is someone with a satnav and a recent model car. Their drivers may be as safe a proposition as black cabs; that is a decision for the punters to reach. But Uber gives you no more than a decent minicab. And, as for their drivers having The Knowledge ... you have got to be joking.
Technology? Not really. You get what you pay for. You pay less, you get less.