London’s Black Cabs: Gems or Relics?

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What would be a more warm and welcome sight to a city tourist – another geo-clueless ‘ride-sharing’ driver or a native, highly trained black cab?

Quite possibly, the realization that it’s got Uber. As an on-demand transportation service, Uber is more than just a household name: it’s the very definition of a glocal enterprise, with individuals around the world taking part as both providers (supply), and users (demand) of the service.

Recently I was visiting London, that labyrinth of one-way streets and roundabouts, and I was wondering “can a relatively untrained often geo-clueless driver with a GPS (uber) truly replace an iconic and often revered black cab?”

Or, more to the point, does Uber prime us to undervalue heritage and cause us to prioritize pure convenience over a potentially richer & more cherished experience? True. There’s a significant price difference between the two today. As in any intent survivor, It’s up to the 4 black cab unions to realistically respond to massive new competition! ( they’ve yet to do that)

London’s black cabs offer so much more than a ride from point A to B

What makes London’s black cabs iconic is not so much the vehicles themselves but the drivers. Before they can call themselves a black cab driver, London black cab drivers spend four years:

  • Studying the thousands of streets, alleys, and nooks and crannies of sprawling London
  • Honing their ability to find the most direct route from A to B and even C
  • Developing a mental catalog of points of interest
  • Taking an unspoken oath of decency & service

It’s that last point really that makes the black cab so much more than an Uber. Tourists and recent transplants to London rely on their cab drivers for insider suggestions on places to go for safe runs, lovely walks, or even just to find quiet in trafficked corners of the busy city.

Is there an app for that? Yes, but ultimately, no.

Yelp, Urbanspoon, and AroundMe can all provide those recommendations. But local, personal recommendations from someone you can look right in the eye are still king.

I pondered this during my visit, asking five different cabbies for their thoughts and the theme was personal recommendations. Each of them said they often discuss options for outdoor markets and sightseeing with visitors.

Tourists aren’t the only ones who rely on their cab drivers for services beyond the minimum. For Londoners themselves, it is not uncommon to get picked up at the office and make a few stops along the way home, leaving their iPad, briefcase and other valuables in the care of the trusted cabbie.

Many residents don’t bat an eye at the thought of being dropped off at their train while the cabbie brings their children home.

Would you trust an Uber driver to do the same? A driver not subject to the same stringent controls as a licenced London black cabbie.

The Rise of Uber

Right now, London has:

  • 21,000 black cabs
  • 93,000 Uber drivers and counting

So Uber isn’t just cheaper than a black cab: by the numbers, Uber drivers are more available. Despite protests by black cab drivers last summer, the Uber app was ruled legal in London, and the effects have been profound. Knowledge Point, London’s largest school for aspiring cabbies, announced that it would close next month, citing Uber and low enrolment among the catalysts for closure.

Check out the press coverage here:

Let’s pause a moment before we toss the fruit and eat the rind

What’s really at stake here? Some of life’s pleasures are surprise encounters, those insights and laughs stored within the characters in and around any urban landscape.

As instigators it is our responsibility to take into consideration those elements of human experience which might otherwise fall through the cracks. With all the tools at our disposal in this time of cultural change, it is critical that we not lose sight of those often overlooked aspects of our day to day lives. Just as we must think both globally and locally, so too must we consider the personal along with the practical and the convenient. No one can deny that Uber has convenience on lock. What remains to be seen is if it can corner the market on a depth of trust that black cab drivers have been forging with their London clientele for decades. Until that happens, the black cabs will always have a home on the twists and turns of London streets.

Where is the voice of the fans of the black cabs? London’s an international city. While many Londoners clearly appreciate and vote with their wallet, so too can we – the many visitors who seek out and trust these gems, not relics.

Image Credit
Black London Cab” by Flickr user James Barrett is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.