London taxi trade: the Knowledge, the Conservatives and the future

A report by one of the capital’s Tory transport experts argues that lighter regulation and enabling reform would help traditional black cabs to survive

London’s black cab drivers deliver Christmas presents to homeless people earlier this month.
 London’s black cab drivers deliver Christmas presents to homeless people earlier this month. Photograph: See Li/Demotix/Corbis

It’s been a fractious year for London’s road transport with a range of competing interest groups fighting for political favour and road space preference against a backdrop of rising congestion. Great anger has been expressed by the capital’s famous black taxi drivers about the disruptive insurgence of Uber, with both Transport for London (TfL) bosses and mayor Boris Johnson feeling the lash of cabbies’ tongues.

The issue has placed Johnson uncomfortably astride the classic Conservative cleft stick – an urge to uphold tradition is at odds with a default deference to market forces. Party colleague and London Assembly member Richard Tracey recently produced a report called Saving An Icon which, on behalf of the Tory group, set out an eight-point action plan for lessening the stress of this unhappy straddling and, in its own words, “rescuing London’s black cabs from extinction”. Does it find the solutions London needs?

The report’s defining principle is that the rules governing the black cab trade must be substantially reformed if it is to survive. “New competitors [in the form of app-based private services] can spell the end of a regulated industry unless that industry is itself allowed to compete on a level playing field,” it says.

The proposal that most challenges the trade’s historic customs is that The Knowledge should be made much easier to acquire. This extraordinary institution, introduced in 1865 and requiring applicants to memorise 320 basic routes through 25,000 streets along with the locations of 20,000 landmarks and locations within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station, is quintessential to the London cabbie legend. The report acknowledges this, describing The Knowledge as “integral to why the London taxi trade is widely viewed as the best in the world,” yet believes it deters younger drivers from entering the trade.

There are, apparently, as many cabbies over the age of 70 as there are under 30. The average age is 52 and rising. Tracey would reduce the basic routes from 320 to around 100 and scrap the “points of interest” element, making The Knowledge attainable within around one year compared with up to three as at present. This, his report contends, would strike a suitable balance between retaining the London cabbie’s specialist wisdom USP and helping an old industry to adapt to changing times.

Making The Knowledge easier would also enable the licence fee for black cabs to be lowered to something closer to that for private hire vehicles. The report further recommends that TfL offers loans for buying modern-day Hackney Carriages but wants the regulation of the trade to transferred to a dedicated, new, arms-length Public Carriage Office. Private sponsorship would finance the expansion of cashless payment systems under this recipe for change. The Tory AM also wants cabbies to have more freedom to vary their fares and black cabs to be exempted from the strictures of the forthcoming Central London Ultra Low Emissions Zone until it comes into force for all other motor vehicles in 2020, rather facing new restrictions from 2018 as presently scheduled.

As measures for countering what the report calls “the three scourges of the taxi industry – the rise of technology, an absentee regulator [in TfL] and the high barriers to entry [The Knowledge in its present form]” this mix of lightened regulation and enabling incentives seems to me to have potential, though cabbies and frequent taxi-users are better qualified to comment. Significantly the report avoids arguing for legal or further regulatory restraints on rivals to the black cab, a course which, as the mayor has detected, would very likely be an exercise in futility as well as an infringement on consumer choice.

However, judgement on any reform of controls on London’s taxi and private hire industry needs to be made in the wider context of road management and street design in the capital as a whole. The Saving An Icon report takes as read a continuing rise in demand for taxis as London’s population and job numbers grow, which raises a wider question about whether such demand should be discouraged given the growing pressures on London’s roads. How far should transport policy facilitate the relative luxury of getting a cab when economic, public health and environmental logic point to encouraging walking, cycling and bus travel instead?

Mayor Johnson’s record on surface transport has often lacked a clear direction, consistent only in its tendency to reward the affluent (principally cyclists and, by halving the congestion charge zone, West London motorists) at the expense of the less fortunate (notably bus passengers). He came to power in 2008 pledging to get London’s streets moving more smoothly and will leave City Hall eight years later with the capital described as Europe’s “gridlock capital.” No mayor would have found it easy to solve that problem, but the next one must surely take a more coherent and strategic approach.

Source: The Guardian

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