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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue