London black cabs taking part in an anti-minicab protest on the Mall, in 2009. Photo: Getty Images
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Black cabs are going to war with apps like Uber for the taxi supremacy of London

London taxi drivers have protested, and are planning further protests, against apps like Uber which offer the same convenience at (they say) an illegally cheap price.

London recently found itself in a state of gridlock. A group of taxi drivers created a deliberate traffic jam near the Shard as a protest. The cause for this cabbie consternation? A taxi rank – or lack thereof.

The union Unite and cab driver groups are complaining about a decision not to allow the development of a new taxi rank near to the building’s entrance. While the row seems like a straightforward issue on the surface, some cabbies also say the protest was about the London authorities cosying up to apps such as Uber, the latest app that lets people use their phone to hitch a ride. The protest could be seen as a manifestation of a wider frustration that is bubbling up in the industry.

The well established organisations that represent cabbies are feeling unsupported and under pressure. Perhaps one of the main causes of this anxiety is a flood of new, well-funded start-ups challenging the dominance of the capital’s perennial black cab. It’s an interesting corollary to note that as the competitive digital space grows so too does the demand for physical space in which traditional firms can compete.

Like other sectors trying to work out the optimal approach to peer-to-peer technology, the taxi industry is being constantly threatened by the death knell of “progress”. This new breed of taxi company makes use of the phone in your pocket. Why bother calling a cab-office middleman or waiting on a cold street corner when a couple of taps on a phone is all it takes to order a taxi directly?

Companies such as Uber, Hailo, Lyft and Get Taxi are all vying for contention in the race to put bums on moving seats. They demonstrate innovative business models and users enjoy their simplicity, but as they continue to expand we have to wonder how they should be recognised and governed by local authorities. Uber says that all its drivers meet local regulations but it has faced legal issues many times in the past.

We also should question whether we want to live in a world in which we have to have the latest smartphone – and indeed a charged smartphone – in order to get a cab.

In the property market, AirBnB has been causing arguments between the authorities and people who want to make a bit of extra cash by renting out their homes. But the transportation industry in particular is mired in social, cultural and legal complexity. Unlike static apartments, roads are places where lots of different people interact, even if those interactions are brief and mainly indirect.

This is a London story at the moment but taxi groups all over the country and all over the world have their own fights to pick. Uber, Hailo, Lyft and many others have faced regulatory opposition in America, Canada, and Europe. As they continue to expand, further conflict is inevitable and perfectly understandable. The services need to be able to justify their existence not only in terms of ease of use, but also through assurance of passenger safety and equitable pricing. Legislation can help these companies to develop a guaranteed level of service provision which matches the quality people expect from the humble black cab.

What legislation cannot do is force innovation on those unwilling to adapt to social change. Black cabs are, after all, notoriously expensive. Perhaps the onus should be on the old system to adapt by lowering prices.

The history of transportation in London is full of technological adaptation, but more importantly social adaptation too. The first Hackney carriages were ultimately replaced by the smaller, two-wheeled Hansom Cab in the 19th century largely due to the social traffic problems that the latter helped to solve. When it no longer became ideal to move all the people living in London around overground they started digging the tube.

As the philosopher Boethius once remarked:

It’s my belief that history is a wheel. ‘Inconstancy is my very essence,’ says the wheel. ‘Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths’.

If all else fails perhaps Londoners could just cycle away from the tyranny of four wheels. The authorities have of course already come up with a scheme to help people do just that.The Conversation

John Harvey receives funding from EPSRC and the University of Nottingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.