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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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.