Hailo - the taxi app that's killing minicabs

New tech in a flagging industry.

Hands up who’s fed up of struggling to find a black cab? You can put your hand down now — literally — thanks to Hailo, an app that uses smartphone technology to do the work for you.

London black cab drivers have never quite managed to master supply and demand. The streets are packed with available cabs, amber lamp lit up, when you don’t need one, but when rush hour starts every single one seems to be perpetually occupied, leaving you — inevitably — in the cold, rain and gloom.

A new app, however, promises to make the cab trade as efficient a market as any City trader, standing somewhere near Bank, vainly sticking out a hand at the traffic in the hope of a taxi, could desire.

Hailo, invented by a group of six which included three taxi drivers, is already being used by two-thirds of the 16,000 full-time black-cab drivers in London and by almost 300,000 customers after only eighteen months, and it’s disrupting — positively — the industry for both.

Once downloaded free of charge, Hailo lets you flag a black cab from wherever you are in London with two taps of your phone: one to open the app and another to hit the ‘Pick Up Here’ button. Thanks to GPS, which tracks the cab, you can see how long it’s going to be, and the driver’s details are confirmed for your security.

You don’t even have to worry about directing the cabbie to a cash point on the way home: you can pay by credit card without extra charge. The driver pays 10 per cent of the fare to Hailo.

London is not the only city to benefit: one in ten of Dublin’s residents use Hailo, while there has been success in Toronto, Chicago, Boston and Madrid. The route has not been clear everywhere, however.

One doesn’t think of London’s grumbling, cynical black-cab drivers as being the first to adopt innovative technology, but they are signing up to Hailo in droves, a hundred registering per week.

Neil Chadwick, a black-cab driver in London for the past eleven years, has been using Hailo since it launched there in 2011, and is a devoted convert:

"I’m doing less hours, getting my money quicker and I’m getting home a little earlier. It gives you another set of eyes. It’s not like being on a radio circuit [which farms out the jobs centrally]: it’s the same as working off the street, but you’re getting jobs that you can’t see. Normally customers would have to go out on to the main road to hail a cab, but now they can do it from where they are, so I’m picking up fares more and more in obscure streets I’ve never heard of."

It’s a strong endorsement of Hailo that it is enabling customers to flag down cabs in streets even a London cabbie deems obscure, but then this is a piece of disruptive technology — and it’s this element that has been crucial to its success.

As a result of the market disruption being wrought by Hailo, minicabs or private hire firms who rely on people pre-booking taxis online and over the phone are seriously worried about their future.

As Ron Zeghibe, one of Hailo’s non-taxi-driver founders and its chairman, says with satisfaction: ‘They aren’t just being phased out. It’s like a revolution: these guys are dead.’ 

Talk of a revolution might seem rather dramatic, but Steve McNamara, general secretary of London’s Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, uses exactly the same word:

‘The introduction of Hailo has revolutionised the taxi trade in London, and it’s educating a whole new generation of customers about the benefits of using a real taxi driven by a professional driver with the Knowledge, as opposed to the minicab service that many had grown up with.’

As well, then, as making the market more efficient, Hailo is also pushing out competition — a double disruption.

The reason the seven similar apps that were in existence before Hailo failed to really take off, suggests Ron Zeghibe, is because they were not based on a proper understanding of London’s black-cab market.

"Hailo is a 21st-century technology solution, and it’s disruptive. But it’s also about taking the solution and grafting it on to what is, in London, a 400-year-old industry. If you don’t understand the operational intricacies of the industry, you will fail."

Zeghibe and two internet entrepreneurs joined forces with three London cabbies — Russell Hall, Gary Jackson and Terry Runham — to get an insight into the industry’s problems. Hall was a London cabbie for 30 years and says that driving around empty was a major concern in the trade:

"One big problem was filling the dead mileage. I live in Kent, so driving back late at night, I’d stop at a set of traffic lights, a car pulls up beside me, it’s obviously a private-hire care, there’s a lady in the back, and she should really be in my vehicle. But she can’t get into my taxi, because she doesn’t know I’m available. Now she can hail me on her phone.’ 

Unlike the entrepreneurs behind the preceding apps, Hailo’s founders had this insider knowledge to rely on. ‘It was our impression,’ says Zeghibe, ‘that the iconic London black cabs had been under pressure for a number of years by the private-hire industry and the professionalisation of minicabs represented by the likes of Addison Lee. They really felt their trade was under threat.

"So we thought, with the power that smartphones are putting in everyone’s pockets, you could offer software solutions through apps and algorithms. You already had the technology to come up with a much more cost-effective solution in matching up drivers with customers, and cutting out intermediary costs."

Part of the function of disruptive innovations is that they change a market that users might not even realise is flawed. For example, pre-booking seems like a perfectly good way of getting a cab when you want it, but according to Zeghibe having to do so is a sign of the market’s imperfection:

"You pre-book because the system is broken, not because it works really well, because you can’t rely on getting a cab exactly when you want it. But if it were a really good market, you’d be able to just flag down your cab exactly when you wanted it."

Despite the benefits of using Hailo for customers and drivers, not all cities are as welcoming as London. In New York, where Hailo rolled out in May, livery and black-car firms are trying to sue the city for permitting customers to hail yellow cabs with smartphone apps.

They argue that apps such as Hailo and its biggest US competitor, Uber, discriminate unfairly against poorer customers who are unable to afford smartphones, and would allow yellow cab drivers to refuse fares more easily.

A similar scenario has played out with other disruptive technologies: while Airbnb, which allows users to hire spare rooms in people’s houses, has been a big success in Britain, it was ruled illegal in New York in May. These apps and sites still have to fight against deep and powerful vested interests in a country which prides itself on its free-enterprise culture.

Zeghibe is dismissive of the black-car and limousine industry’s reactionary stance: "It’s complete and utter bullshit. What it really comes down to is that a number of players in New York don’t want competition. London is a much more liberal market — it allows innovation to happen.2

The Hailo lawsuit was thrown out in April by a State Supreme Court judge, and Hall attests to a huge level of interest in Hailo among yellow-cab drivers, so it seems that opponents will not have their way in New York.

The path for expansion is clear for Hailo, and it plans to be in Tokyo, Osaka, Barcelona, Madrid, Washington DC and Cork by the end of the year. And, as Hall points out, cab drivers the world over are happy for the disruption the app has brought to their trade:

"We had a golf day yesterday, and this guy I’d never met before came up to me and said, “Thanks for saving the cab trade.” To get that commendation was magnificent."

This article first appeared on Spears magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Nayler is a senior researcher at Spear's magazine.

Umaar Kazmi
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“They should be on bended knee apologising”: Chris Williamson warns Corbynsceptic Labour MPs

The MP for Derby North on his return to Parliament, why Labour won in marginal seats, and how party unity could have led to a Labour government.

At 5am on election morning, Chris Williamson was ceremonially tearing up some binbags. Two dustbin liners had been taped over the gold and green “Chris Williamson MP” sign on his Derby North constituency office since 2015. When it was announced that he’d won England’s most marginal constituency back from the Tories, he headed down to the old office with his team, and they tore the binbags down, dust raining upon them.

“Those black bin liners taped round were like a reminder whenever you glanced up that, one day, it’d be nice to pull that off,” he grins. In his two years away from the Commons, having been beaten by 41 votes last election, Williamson had been using the office as an advice centre.

Before then, the former bricklayer had represented the Midlands constituency from 2010 to 2015, having served as a local councillor – and twice as council leader – for two decades.


All photos: Umaar Kazmi​

Now he’s back, and squatting in a vegan-friendly café along the river from Parliament as he waits to be given an office. His signature flatcap sits on the table beside a glass of sparkling water.

“I’m not a fan of that place anyway, really, it’s horrible and oppressive, and not really fit for purpose,” he says. “That’s the slight downside. It goes with the territory I suppose. If we could move out of Westminster, that would be nice – somewhere like Birmingham or Manchester or Derby even – the centre of the country, isn’t it?”

“New Labour’s dead, buried and finished”

Perhaps this distaste for the bubble is to be expected, as Williamson is an ardent Corbynite. I followed him on the campaign trail before the election, and he was championing Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and leadership on every doorstep. It seemed a rather brave move among many undecided voters at the time, but has now been vindicated. You can almost tell from his trainers, crumpled polo shirt and contended expression that Williamson is supremely comfortable in the most left-wing Labour party since he became an MP.

“New Labour’s dead,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “No doubt about that. It’s dead, buried and finished. It's a regrettable chapter in our history. Historians will think ‘my God, what were they doing?!’” he cries.

Williamson believes he won due to Jeremy Corbyn’s character, the manifesto, a “fantastic” local campaign, and an “outstanding” national campaign. He thanks Momentum activists rallying so many people that they often had 20 teams canvassing simultaneously in his seat. And he praises an online campaign that targeted different demographics – Ukip voters in particular would mention his videos.

“If they’d been more supportive then we’d have got over the line”

“We targeted some elements of our campaign to specific cohorts,” he says. “For example, we did a message online to people who had supported Ukip previously about how a Labour government would genuinely take back control, take on the corporations, bring back the utilities into public ownership – rather than controlled by international, global corporations many of which are ripping us off.”

Williamson adds that young people were enthused by the pledges to scrap tuition fees, abolish zero-hours contracts and raise the minimum wage. He also saw Tory voters switch, attracted by a policy programme that he describes as “common sense” rather than radical.

He admits that people warned him to “disassociate yourself from Jeremy if you’re going to win” when he began campaigning. But he tells me he would “have sooner lost than gone down that road”.

But he has strong words for those who were more sceptical, saying they “let down their members” and lamenting that “if they’d been more supportive over the intervening period, then we’d have probably got over the line”.

Williamson calls on all the Corbynsceptic MPs to apologise: “They should be down on their bended knees and apologising, in fact. Not just to Jeremy but to the entire Labour movement.”

However, he believes his party is “more united” now than it has been for the 41 years he’s been a member, and is happy to “move on” – expressing his gratitude for how much warmth he’s received from his MP colleagues, “given how critical I’ve been of them!”

It may be Chris Williamson’s time in the sun – or the “sunshine of socialism” as he puts it, quoting Keir Hardie – but he does have jitters about his majority. It is 2,015 – the digits matching the election year when he was defeated by the Tories. “It’s a reminder that we lost then!” he laughs.

> Now read Anoosh on the campaign trail in Derby North with Chris Williamson

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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