Consider the poor old manuscript illuminators of yore. One minute you’re a venerated creator of majestic Bibles, the next minute you’re out on your ear while a printing press bangs out books by the hundred.
Such is the predicament of London’s ‘black cab’ drivers, long esteemed for their mandatory savant-level Knowledge of the city’s streets. You could have asked any driver in the 1980s whether they thought their monopoly was breakable and they’d probably have said, ‘Well mate, not until they invent a magic bloody box that tells any bozo where they are and exactly how to get to where they need to go.’ Unfortunately for them, some bright spark chucked 32 satellites into space, called it GPS, and now the cabbies’ stranglehold on the city’s personal transport game is (in the long term, at least) surely all over bar the shouting.
To which they might add: ‘Oooh, did somebody say SHOUTING?’
Last week, they were furious that their taxi rank was too far from the Shard, and now they’re turning their anger towards app-powered car-hire upstarts Uber. On paper, it’s a pedantic technical squabble: one of the distinctions between minicabs and taxis is that only taxis are allowed to have a ‘meter.’ Uber drivers’ smartphones perform, let’s face it, exactly the same task (measure the distance and travel time of the journey and charge the appropriate fare at the end), but because they aren’t connected to the car itself like a black cab’s meter, Transport for London say they don’t count and they’re allowed to carry on.
But the real beef is this: Uber drivers are now offering a car service in central London, but they don’t need the Knowledge, or the hundreds of pounds extra it costs in fees to register as a taxi driver. You can see why this irritates the people who’ve previously gone to all that bother, and naturally, making it more difficult to become a cab driver (and restricting the services non-taxi-drivers can provide) limits the amount of competition and helps keep prices high. What Licensed Taxi Drivers Association don’t mention (although they do claim that TfL’s decision is ‘dangerous for Londoners’) is that Uber’s drivers aren’t just a bunch of shady chancers – they’re regulated as private hire drivers, and subject to all the same health and security clearances as a ‘proper’ cabbie, hence TfL’s CabWise campaign.
Nonetheless, the black cab gang are mighty aggrieved, and planning a day of protests on June 11.
The LTDA general secretary Steve McNamara told the BBC: ‘I anticipate that the demonstration against TfL’s handling of Uber will attract many many thousands of cabs and cause severe chaos, congestion and confusion across the metropolis.’ And as Londoners love nothing more than chaos, congestion and confusion, they’re no doubt set to rally to his cause.
If it’s any consolation, though, they’re not alone: Uber and services like it are the subject of protests, strikes, and legal injunctions in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Houston, Portland, New Orleans, Seattle, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, Vancouver and Toronto.