Why do London taxis still make us pay in cash?

Dinosaurs drive among us.

I think we’ve all been there. You’ve finally managed to grab a cab somewhere in Soho after scrambling to get home for an hour and a half on a Saturday night. Once you get in you realise that you’re out of cash and moreover, as usual, this taxi doesn’t take cards. So instead of getting home quickly, your cabdriver takes a detour to get you past an ATM on the way. You easily end up trying out a few cash points, because the first one was out of money and the second had technical problems. What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute ride home has turned into a 25-minute tour of London, all the while adding to the mounds of pollution in the city air. Lovely. 

As a native Dane it has been a rude awakening living in London and realising that an overwhelming majority of taxis do not accept cards. Most other European countries have long since implemented electronic payment systems in taxis on a national level. In Denmark, card swipe machines were replaced for chip and PIN devices last year, after the cabs had enjoyed card payments for more than two decades. According to representatives of the Danish and German taxi industry, the ability to pay by card heightens security for the cab driver in that payment is guaranteed. It has also given the industry a much-needed boost, in that more people are taking longer journeys in taxis, since they can rely on the security and ease of paying by card.

Somehow, this development has eluded London's taxis. Here it's common practice for cabs to drive past an ATM if a customer is without cash, making the trip more expensive for the customer. Not to mention, that the cab emanates even more CO2 when it is kept at a standstill for several minutes while the transaction is being made.
But never mind the environment (note the sarcasm). In an automobile and diesel heavy industry, this is not the argument that will win over the taxi industry. Like one card-accepting cabdriver said to me this weekend: "We have some dinosaurs in this industry. I don't get why they can't understand that this would be better for all of us?! We would get longer trips, more customers and we'd be far more sure of getting paid."

Lately, apps like Hailo and GetTaxi have been developed to make electronic payments possible in taxis via tablet or smart-phone. I have personally used both apps regularly, refusing to partake in the cash-chaos. And they’re effective. With a little click you can easily order a nearby cab within seconds and once you’ve put in your details the payment is made securely via your credit or debit card at the end of your journey. In my opinion, it’s pretty brilliant to make the stress of getting home after hours in London, a lot easier. But even these systems have some serious issues for customers and taxis alike.

One app-accepting cabdriver recently informed me that customers using Hailo need to watch out for the amounts deducted on their account. Because the app doesn’t entail end-of-journey approval of the final amount, some London cabdrivers have begun exploiting the app by driving on and debiting the customer for more than the journey itself. Now we aren’t talking about major amounts, but nevertheless, this is payment fraud. Another issue is that not every cab has signed up with these apps, making it sometimes impossible to get a free cab via the app. And in that case, you’re just back to square one.

So if the apps can’t always be relied on for electronic payments and card terminals aren’t being installed in the taxis, then what are we supposed to do? I’m far from the only one frustrated with this situation. Friends and colleagues alike have often complained about the necessity for cash when taking a cab. Not to mention that a massive tourist destination like London, should be considering the amount of foreign customers who are not prepared to pay for their cabs by cash. It’s just not customer-friendly or for that matter, very modern. So why does paying for a cab via card have to be such a hassle?

As far as I can understand, the issue of implementing card payments is an on-going discussion for the taxi industry in London. It seems to me that the benefits regarding security, increased earnings and the environment are great, whereas I don’t quite see the negatives of implementing card payments. People will still pay cash if they can or prefer. Yes card transactions have fees – but these are usually directed at the customers and will therefore have minimum impact on the cab drivers themselves. So what is the problem? I guess only the dinosaurs can answer that.

Photograph: Getty Images

Sandra Kilhof Nielsen is a freelance writer and former reporter for Retail Banker International, Cards International & Electronic Payments International.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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