Minicab mobile apps such as Uber are threatening to drive traditional taxis off the streets but, say Britain’s cabbies, it’s about more than simply getting people from A to B
One night a couple of years ago, on a black cab ride from Putney to Kentish Town, the driver told me he’d become a priest. Not an actual priest in a black frock, but certainly the sort who took confessions. Szymon (originally Polish) had been driving a cab for 27 years, always at night. He was nearing retirement age and though he’d made enough money from property development to mean he didn’t have to keep working any more, he carried on because he enjoyed it.
“You wouldn’t believe,” he said, “the confessions.” Confessions? What sort of confessions? “People getting down on their knees in the back, shuffling up to the partition and talking through that little cash slot. Asking for absolution, like in church.” What, people seriously do the whole bless me, father thing in the back of a cab? “Yes! I swear!” he said. Why? “Because they want someone to hear them, and you’re a stranger and they know they’ll never see you again. And it’s not one or two doing it, it’s someone every few weeks.”
OK, I said, so what do they want to say? “Men want to brag,” he said. “They’re drunk or they’re high and they want to tell you all about the deal they’ve just done. Or the affair they’re having and the women they want. And then after that they tell you what they would have done differently.” And the women? “The women want a shoulder to cry on.” Cry about what? “About men, mostly. About regrets. About how to save their dead marriages. Or the children they wish they’d had.”
I wasn’t sure whether to believe him. Truths possibly, the telling of secrets certainly, but the whole on-the-knees absolution thing? Surely not. So on cab rides since, I’ve asked the drivers for their experiences. Yes, they said, almost unanimously. Yes, you get people confessing and, yes, they want absolution. Half of taxi-driving is driving, and the other half is psychology. A city isn’t made of brick and tarmac, a city is made of stories.
What would London be without its black cabs? Whatever you think of cabbies – too expensive, too mouthy – fix the city in your mind and there they always are: Big Ben, London Eye, red bus, black cab.
Lately, though, that place in London life has started to look a bit rickety. Back in June, black cabs came out on strike, bringing central London to a standstill over what they claimed was the threat from the Uber minicab mobile app. The strike was widely seen as an impressive own goal, giving national publicity to one app among several that already offer punters a normally cheaper and often faster way to get from one side of London to another. Tap in where you are, where you want to go, and you’ll get back an estimate of how long it will take to get a minicab to you and how much it will cost.
A few black cab drivers have joined Uber’s fleet, but the rest stand firm. Uber and its competitors, they say, are killing trade. They’re unreliable, unsafe and their drivers wouldn’t know Austin Friars from a deep-fat fryer. They’re too dependent on satnav. Worse, Uber drivers – like those of minicab company Addison Lee and its competitors – lease their cars. This means, according to the black cab drivers, they have to complete lots of trips just to break even, which means that for 12 hours on the go they have to drive like the Four Horsemen, hurling the rest of London aside in their wake. Or, as one cabbie put it, “They’ve got their satnav and their crumpled suit, and they think that’s it.”
Uber in particular has come in for bad press recently. Customers must register, giving full names, bank details and home addresses, before they can book an Ubercar, and questions have been raised about the security of that data, and what the company might do with it. Two other apps, Hailo and GetTaxi, use the same principle to get people black cabs, rather than minicabs.
But it’s hard to see how the traditional black cab can compete against a business model offering minicabs that are up to half as cheap and just as easy to come by. So are we witnessing the last days of the black cab, and if we are, should we care?
Up the far end of Caledonian Road, opposite Pentonville prison, is the Knowledge Point school. Beside a row of scooters, a man wearing a yarmulke is talking loudly to a couple of Egyptians about cheese samples. Inside, a small shop is selling every possible version of the London A-Z, from pocket to poster, plus a series of route lists – West London, Embassies & High Commissions, Theatres & Venues.
Upstairs, there’s a big classroom in which 22 students sit in various stages of dejection, looking at coloured maps of central London on the table in front of them. All are male, most are middle-aged and all are doing the Knowledge as a second or, in some cases, tenth career. They’re about 18 months into their training and even to get this far takes tenacity: such is the Knowledge’s complexity that there’s a steady seven-in-10 dropout rate.
They have started on their “appearances”, the notorious live examinations in which they are tested on the routes they have learned and their capacity to deal with the Great International Public. The examiners might tell them they’ve called a right route wrong, or find a way to wind them up.
Today’s tutor is Derek O’Reilly, a cabbie who estimates he’s coached maybe 6,000 drivers through the Knowledge. At the moment, he’s getting them to “call” some of the 320 different routes they may be examined on – say, Alexandra Palace to Crystal Palace by the straightest route possible, noting all the one-way systems and major points of interest within a quarter-mile radius of the destination. In total, they have to learn about 10,000 places as well as the streets and directions.
O’Reilly has been working here for 18 years and has watched the demographics change. When he started, cabbing was still a big Jewish profession; there were no women, but a fifth of his intake were from overseas. Now, despite the evidence in this room, he says it’s about 15% women, and over half are first-generation immigrants. The changes in the drivers mirror the changes in their fares. Lots of Chinese, for instance, have settled in East Finchley, while the Japanese want Ealing. Ten years ago, no cab ever got fares to Dalston, Wapping or Aldgate; now every second trip is over east. Chelsea’s so rich that it’s a second-home ghost town; Notting Hill is going the same way.
So why, with all the competition, are these apprentices going through this? What’s the point in spending three or four years studying road signs when you could just get an iPhone instead?
Freedom, everyone says. Once you’ve got your badge and paid for the taxi, it’s yours to drive or not drive as much as you like. One man was a teacher and got fed up with the abuse. Two or three were in family businesses and wanted a break from fighting with their father or brother. Many have kids and appreciate the flexibility cabbing gives them: “If you get out a couple of days a week driving, you probably keep your marriage going.”
Redha Meheni, 40, cites something else: “Freedom of religion. I’m a religious guy, I pray five times a day. If I do the Knowledge, I’ll know every single church around the city. If I get a tourist who doesn’t want to miss prayers, he’ll know I’ll take him to the nearest available synagogue or church or mosque. When it’s Ramadan, I can work within my faith – I don’t have to explain to someone that I need a day off.”
Jimmy Williams has a different reason. “I just woke up one day and I’d had enough of what I was doing.” What was that? “I drive horses. I’m a horseman, a carriage master. But there’s not a lot of future in it.” He’s 56 and has been driving horses for 20 years. “Film locations, Lord Mayor’s Show, Harrods’ Christmas Day parade, weddings, funerals, proms. That’s a new big thing, taking kids to proms on a horse-drawn carriage, that’s really popular; six screaming girls all falling out.”
But he’s decided it’s time for a change. “I just… I want a pension, really.” At least his knowledge of the city must give him an advantage. He shakes his head, says it’s so much harder than he thought, and echoes the comments of others: you think you know the place, then you do the Knowledge.
Like every other driver here, Williams has found the Knowledge hard – harder than a degree. Notoriously, according to studies, learning the Knowledge can actually expand the bit of the brain required for navigation. There comes a point at which all the students will start dreaming streets, calling their children by street names, reciting every street within half a mile of a landmark on TV. “This is an opportunity for someone at a late age to educate themselves, and it’s a unique education,” Meheni says. “And once you’ve achieved it, then at least in your life you’ve achieved something. When you achieve it, it will be like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve done the Knowledge!’ I could go and drive [a minicab] tomorrow, but I’m choosing the harder option.”
In Liverpool, they use cabs instead of buses, partly because there aren’t many buses and partly because at night, few people want to take them. So here, in a neat reversal of the situation in London, there are cab ranks at supermarkets and in areas where people can’t afford cars. They’re also deregulated, so apart from a very slimline version of the Knowledge, black cab drivers are unified only by the desire to make a living. Thus, when you come out of Central Station, you can be greeted by any number of wedding, hen and stag cab specialists, plus at least 14 competing flavours of Beatles tour. Tourism is worth £3.1bn a year to Liverpool, and four men from a band that broke up 44 years ago must account for about half of that.
Mark Curetan comes from a cabbing family: father, uncle, two brothers all cabbies. When he smashed his foot on a construction job, his dad fixed him up with a test for the cabs and he’s been driving since. His cab has an iPod dock and the ubiquitous CCTV. As we swing through the Liverpool hotspots – Anfield, theChinese arch, Toxteth (rows and rows of tree-lined streets full of boarded-up slate-miners’ cottages all on sale for a quid each) – fellow cabbie Phil Gerrard rattles through the spiel: how Liverpool was left for dead during the 80s, howMichael Heseltine is the only Tory who can hold his head up here, how Paul’s been good to this place but Ringo hasn’t. All of it is very heavy on the civic pride. “Liverpool’s the most bombed city after London,” Gerrard says proudly at one point. That’s me sold.
The difference between now and 20 years ago, when Curetan started, is the drugs: the quantity, variety and degree. In the 90s it was high-grade heroin, now it’s coke selling for £30 a gram and club drugs such as ketamine, plus, of course, the ever popular alcohol. Curetan reckons 80% of his passengers on a weekend will be jigging to the tune of half a dozen different intoxicants, and with extended licensing hours, some city centre clubs are open till 7am. “It’s harder trying to reason with them than it was 20 years ago,” he says.
The other big feature these days is loneliness. “With old people, maybe they don’t see anyone from one day to the next. They get in your cab on the way to the shops and they’ll talk nonstop from the minute you pick them up to the minute you drop them off, because you’re a point of contact, and they might not see someone for three days once they’ve got out of your cab.” Do you get good at spotting loneliness? “Yes, I’d say so. One of the guys the other day got a fare and the guy just wanted to drive around Liverpool. The driver said, ‘Where do you want to go?’ And he said, ‘Anywhere. Just drive.’ He just wanted to chat. It’s a sad situation when they’re having to get into a cab and drive around with someone just for the company.”
Up in Glasgow’s Castlemilk, Jim McNulty is sitting in his taxi and looking out over the city. He grew up here, and from his bedroom window he watched the city being built. There’s Ben Lomond in the distance and the scarlet-netted Red Road flats. There must be cardboard boxes that have lasted longer than those flats; from modernist cure-all to humiliated sink estate in less than 50 years. Originally, the plan was to demolish five of the six as a punchy kind of opener to the Commonwealth Games, but when someone pointed out that it was a funny way to welcome the world to Glasgow, by blowing bits of it up, the plan was scrapped and they got Rod Stewart instead.
If you drive a black (or, in McNulty’s case, white) cab for a long time, you get to know the city well. Not just the geography, but the lore of it all. The story someone at that restaurant told you, the years spent dreaming by the traffic lights, the unresolved conversations. In Glasgow’s case, those conversations often involve God and alcohol. And football.
McNulty and three other men are gathered around a table in an office near Celtic FC’s Parkhead stadium. These four have been driving cabs for over 20 years and know each other very well. There are 21,000 black cabs in London and 1,430 in Glasgow. Glaswegian drivers do a shorter version of the Knowledge, join theGlasgow Taxis co-op and buy their cabs outright, lease them or share them with other drivers.
What are the worst fares? David Hodgson, 47, a cabbie of 23 years and two days’ standing, says, “I don’t look for quality of hire at the weekend, I look for quality of person.” Kevin Mackintee, 55, agrees: “High heels, skirt. Must have boobs out to there at least. I’ve got a boobometer – when they come in the door, their boobs must hit the side.”
They laugh, but Hodgson adds more seriously: “I don’t like the look of you, I won’t stop. I’d rather knock you back in the city centre than take you to Easterhouse and fight you for 12 quid. You know what to look for, it comes down to experience. It’s not down to being drunk – you can be drunk and fantastic, and you can be sober and an arse.”
They all agree women are worse. Tommy McRory is 62 and has been driving for almost 40 years. “I’d rather a drunk guy than a woman,” he says. Hodgson agrees: “If a drunk guy falls asleep, you can jump in the back and wake him up. You can’t jump in the back and wake a woman up. You’ve got to go to a police station. You imagine if a woman falls asleep and she wakes up and there’s a big hairy guy leaning over her.”
Hodgson says he’d rather work a Celtic Rangers game than a Robbie Williams gig. “Because with an Old Firm game, you work it out – you work it out so you pick up your own kind.” So there are Celtic cabbies and Rangers cabbies? Aye, unofficially.
“I’m a Celtic man,” McNulty says, “and the boys here are Rangers boys. But if four Rangers fans get in the cab, you know what? I’m a Rangers man.”
Ask about their most memorable fares and the stories pour out: couples having sex in the back; times when they’ve helped someone in with shopping or luggage and then driven off, leaving the shopper forgotten; smelly millionairesses; executives on the game; marital and extramarital rows; men who visit clubs they shouldn’t.
I ask about the threat from minicabs and apps such as Uber, which hasn’t yet hit Liverpool but, given its success in London, Dublin, Manchester and Leeds, presumably will eventually. Why should punters keep taking black cabs? “The thing about it is, you might encounter a grumpy taxi driver, you might encounter an arsehole of a driver,” McRory says, “but the one thing about him, he’s going to be honest.”
“I don’t know what makes us different,” Hodgson says, “but this is our livelihood. This is our life. We’re in this for ever. This is my job.”
As a professional endorsement, “Black Cabs – Bitter, but not Actively Criminal” is somewhat lacking. But the truth is, it’s difficult to make a case for black cabs over minicabs, particularly in the age of the internet. They are generally more expensive, they have to go via the shortest route – which may not necessarily be the best one – and for all the rigour of the Knowledge, cabbies are as prone to forgetting as the rest of us.
Derek O’Reilly puts up a spirited defence. “Uber drivers don’t have the guts to do the Knowledge,” he says. “It’s a myth that they’re cheaper – they sucker you in with cheap rates, then when it’s raining they push the prices up. We believe the price you see is the price you should pay.”
What if the public doesn’t agree with him? “People like Uber initially, but I’ve had several telling me they tried it and found it a rip-off, or the driver got lost, and they’re drifting back to us.”
London cabbie Jamie Owens agrees “once Uber have a stranglehold on the market, the rates will go up. If you work it out over a year, I bet the black cab is better value.” He’s been driving for 24 years but believes the future is bleak: “I think in five years you won’t find a black cab in London, because this trade will be dead,” he says, citing Uber as just one problem, along with road closures, the number of buses competing for space and the rising cost of the taxi itself.
Black cabs have been with us, in some form, for 400 years. What happens if apps and electronic navigation render them obsolete? Can they survive just as London scenery, forms of heritage transport affordable only to the rich and visiting?
“OK, maybe we’re being dinosaurs,” O’Reilly says. “I accept that we need to embrace new technology. But there should be no lowering of standards. Year on year, London cabs are voted the best in the world. Why would we want to lose that?”
You’ll never guess who I had in the other day… black cab drivers recall their most memorable fare
Phil Gerrard, Liverpool I picked Ken Dodd up once. My mother is a huge fan and I told him I’d bought her his double album for Mother’s Day. He said he’d sign it, but I didn’t have it with me. So he said I could ring my mum. He talked to her for ages but I could only hear his side. All he was saying was, “It is, honest, it is me, honest, it’s me.” The fare was £9.60. He gave me a £10 note and said, “Take £9.80 and give me a receipt for £10.” That made me laugh.
Paul Cowland, London I’ve had people shout at me like David Mellor did, and I just stop the cab and tell them to get out. I don’t need to take that. It’s usually when they’re running late. Once I took a heavily inebriated guy from the City all the way to Hampstead in north London. When we got there, he refused to pay me. He tried to get out but I kept the doors shut, then I drove him all the way back to where he got in. His face was a picture. I’ve been driving for 10 years. You learn quite a bit.
I had Sienna Miller in the cab once. She’d arranged to get a limo but it hadn’t turned up. I had no idea who she was, but there were paparazzi everywhere, crawling on the car, trying to get inside. I said, “Are you famous?” She said, “A little bit.” I managed to lose them, stopped round the corner from where she was going and got her to pay me there, so she could get out quickly when we arrived.
Jamie Owens, London Nowadays it seems people can’t just have a drink and enjoy themselves; they have to get absolutely rat-faced. Up until two or three years ago, I’d had just three people be sick in the cab in 20-odd years. Now it’s three or four a year. I haven’t had any babies born in the back, but I’ve had plenty of couples having sex there. A lot of people have it on their bucket list, like joining the mile high club. You just have to carry on driving, not a lot else you can do.
Jim McNulty, Glasgow I once picked a guy up and he was so drunk, he fell asleep on the floor of the cab. I forgot he was there. Sometimes you’re just in automatic mode. After about 20 minutes I noticed the meter was still on and switched it off. A couple hailed me and when they got in she started screaming at the sight of this man lying on the floor. He woke up, of course, and they realised that, coincidentally, they were going to the same road. The three of them had a chitchat all the way home and split the fare.
Louis Loizou, London Once I had to go and pick up a kosher chicken and take it to St John’s Wood for £29. There I was, sitting next to a chicken! At least it couldn’t complain about the traffic or tell me what route to go. Before the expenses scandal, I used to get a lot of MPs, and they’d get me to wait while they did their shopping or got their hair cut, all on account. I’ve had loads of famous people and I always ask them to sign a book I keep in the front for my daughter. She’s 21 now but I’ve been doing it for her for 10 years. Madonna, Rowan Atkinson, Harry Enfield, Michael Palin. Everyone signs it.