Taxi dilemma

When I arrived in Coventry yesterday, there were no taxis to be had, but weirdly lots of black cabs parked in the way. Thanks to Twitter and the driver of a scab cab I eventually used rather shamefully – the bus was never going to arrive and I had a lecture to give – I found out what it was all about.

Apparently, until the cabs were deregulated in the early noughties, there were around 100 which was clearly not enough. Now there are nearly 1,000 and the cabbies are demanding that the council stops issuing any new licences. For its part, the council says that it is unclear about how much demand there is and does not want to restrict the numbers. So the cabbies – or most of them – went on strike and are now due to meet the council tomorrow, Wednesday, to try to get a survey to establish local demand. Certainly a thousand cabs for a town of 300,000, given there are also minicabs, does seem a lot.

It is one of those thorny issues. In London, TfL effectively limits the number of black cab drivers by enforcing the demand that they should get The Knowledge, a process that takes on average 2 years. In these days of satnavs and mobile communications, it is hardly necessary, but it does the job as a restrictive practice. Cabs in London are, too, ridiculously expensive and have just gone up by 2.7 per cent. I certainly never use one except in extremis while if they were half the price, I might. Moreover, at the risk of being run over next time I cycle into town, there does seem to be too many of them despite The Knowledge.

So what is the right number for Coventry? And should the market determine that, which is effectively what is happening, or should there be some controls to ensure there is not a surplus and that those who do get a licence make a decent living? In a sense, if there were not money to be made, then there would not be more newcomers coming on to the market. Then, on the other hand, if there is a surfeit, it must take ages for the poor fellows to make enough money to live on. Given the loss of manufacturing jobs in the local area, it is no surprise that there is a steady stream of applicants. I must be getting old, but for once I have no clear idea of what is the right policy.

  • Peter

    Let the market decide. That’s the simple answer.

    Bureaucrats trying to guess the “right” number will be no succesful than a committee trying to decide the number of smarties there should be.

  • Art

    Enforce standards, not numbers. I don’t like the market for trains or buses, but taxis can work well enough in this way.

  • Dan

    Interesting – I wonder what other cities do to get the right balance. Like Art said stds is important eg ensuring disability access means ‘London style’ taxis for a start – they cost a lot to buy so the owner has to be serious (but then I guess wants some ‘gaurantee’ that they can get a rtn on that investment) – then of course there needs to be heavy security checking on both vehicle and driver – this costs too and means it is not a simple ‘let the market decide’ issue.

    I know in my city drivers often share a vehicle – getting better ‘value’ from the capital expenditure but limiting overall the number of vehicles. Which I assume the council restricts. I think the local council also has some role in fare setting for Hackney Carriages (although now I think about it I’m not sure).

    I’m also aware that groups sharing them (eg 4 or 5 students) reckon that they pay about the same as a bus fare per person – not sure that this is ideal since it leads to more cars on the road (as taxis) when buses are already running, but there we are.

    I don’t subscribe to the view that taxis are part of the ‘public transport’ system though really – so I don’t favour them being given the perks of access to bus lanes (which they then use when not carrying passengers and just block up). The prosperity of the town concerend will impact on usage I suppose.

    I’d have though in PTE areas like Coventry the PTE (centro) should have a role (like TfL) – but I assume it doesn’t?

  • Richard Hare

    Like you say, a tricky one.
    Here in sunny Basildon the number of cabs has gone up three-fold since the council removed its cap, with the inevitable result that drivers either can’t make a living from it or are driving so many hours that they pose a safety hazard. Incredibly there are no limits on driving hours as there are on virtually all other professional drivers.
    Of course, the alternative is a restrictive practice that introduces its own problems, one of which is corruption in the licence issuing system.
    And to see how bad it can get, look at the Greek lorry drivers who buy a permit to operate, a permit so valued there is a very expensive market in them. When the Greek government tried to deregulate the existing drivers rebelled as their massive investment in a permit was instantly rendered worthless.

  • Percy

    A lot of what is said by Richard in post No4 hits the nail on the head.

    Taxis are a massive investment for owner drivers in terms of vehicle costs and insurance, also more stringent MOTs mean its not worth keeping a car that needs one on the road, so you re invest lots of money in a new vehicle every three years, maybe the market decides demand for licences itself like it is doing now outside London and indeed Councils like this because the more taxis licensed sees their revenue go up while the taxi operators revenue goes down. Ironic really, de regulation and free market principles of not caping licenses are giving the state owned Council more tax and revenue while starving the small private owner operator of a decent operating margin.

    In the bargain, as mentioned above, longer hours are being worked and there are no limitations on driver hours, which in many cases are excessive to the point of being dangerous but that is the only way the drivers get to recover their costs and make a living which raises the question, is unrestricted Council licensing making a cab journey more dangerous instead of safer when looked at in a risk assesment theory criteria at least?

  • JG

    I’m afraid in the taxi/cab business de-regulation means criminalisation. Edinburgh had one of the most regulated regimes in the UK, high vehicle standards were and still are demanded for black cabs and their own version of the knowledge. Until about 5 to 10 years ago the majority of black cabs were owner operators.
    But there has been constant pressure on the council to dilute standards and issue more licences, this is now happening and it’s only a matter of time before the council washes it’s hands of the whole thing and de-regulates.
    There has been a steady incursion of Glasgow criminal elements and a large proportion of Edinburgh’s cab and taxi business is now effectively a money laundering exercise!

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    As a regular user of taxis from Coventry Station to the University Science Park the oversupply of taxis in the City means that you can always get one when getting off the train – and when they are not on strike! It’s not the first time, Christian. However, given the high fare levels in Coventry I suspect that they do not have to make many trips to pay their bills hence the number of vehicles available. In the town where I live the number of taxis is restricted and this results in a mad scramble off the train at busy times, also after 7pm when the local bus services only run at hourly frequencies, leaving the slower and more vulnerablle (who probably need the vehicle more than the fit sprinters) long waits in a bleak location. As a user I think that I prefer the market forces solution. The problem with Coventry, as it is with many British cities, is the lack of a proper network of high frequency bus services to prime destinations integrated with the rail service and with the main station used a a transport interchange. Warwick University, and its busy well located Science Park, is a prime destination but there is a poor bus service from stops that are hidden away from arriving rail passengers. Arriving at 9am I have frequently been in a convoy of a dozen or more taxis all heading in the same direction most with only one or two people on board. Coventry City Planners have also allowed other major office park developments much further out that the University one and these cannot be accessed by bus, although some big organisations run their own as they are presumably cheaper than paying the high taxi fares that the queuing drivers are waiting for. It is not just taxi provision that needs reviewing in this country but the whole concept of environmentally efficient public transport. Take a look at Switzerland to see how it can and should work.

  • Percy

    Its also worth mentioning that longer Pub & Club opening hours mean that the Fri & Sat shifts where drivers hope to go into profit are generally no busier in terms of revenue than when the pubs shut at 11pm, the same amount of business is spread out further into the small hours meaning that a driver who could once get to bed for 2am in a provincial town now finds himself getting to bed at 4 or 5am, longer hours at a really bad time of the day for the same money.

    If you sit down and add up the weekly costs, car, insurance, licence, radio, fuel, station permit ( yes train companies charge for the priviledge of sitting outside their, sorry Network Rails station – First TP was charging about £500PA five years ago). Take into account that the wheels arent turning more than they are and you soon get to realise that taxi fares arent that expensive and that the wages a driver is getting out of his business for the long unsocial hours he puts in are not that fantastic.

  • Dan

    On a related theme I assume a great many taxi trips (but probably much less so for mini cabs) are pretty short runs – interspersed with time at ranks – does this not make Hackney Carriages ideally suited to being switched over electric power?

    This might cut particulate pollution in urban areas (esp as many taxis seem to idle at the rank either so they can move up the queue or presumably keep warm inside whilst waiting). It would seem to make sense for councils to equip ranks as charging points. Maybe electric vehicle technology has not got this far yet, but I’d have thought it would make sense councils starting to think about moving to only licence electric or hybrid taxis – or am I totally off beam here?

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Dan,

    You are spot-on.

    For the last few years Vancouver has generally only allowed hybrids into the taxi fleet in the city. Most are now Toyota prius. They do allow a small proportion of conventional MPVs to cater for bigger parties, or where there is a lot of luggage. In BC drivers coming into the business have to pass a series of basic skills and knowledge tests as a TaxiHost. These are run by the Pacific Traffic Education Centre (a BC Government Agency) at the Justice Institute of British Columbia where I have worked.. These were started in response to people complaining about the lack of route knowledge by some drivers and the lack of interpersonal skills that most drivers had. A high incidence of taxi crashes earlier in the last decade also showed a need for better driving skills. On the run-up to the Winter Olympics in 2010 it was seen that as many visitors first impression of the City was when they got into a cab at their arrival point these people set the scene for Vancouver, and indeed Canada. I doubt if any of our cities would take such an initiative.

  • Percy

    I did read a few years ago about a hybrid conversion for Londons Black Cabs which although costly at the front end would save drivers about 7K a year in fuel. I can remember which publication the article was in but I havent really heard anything about this since that time The gist of the story was that it was something that had been tried in NY with their gas guzzling Yellow Cabs and was seen as a way of preserving the traditional Black Cab look in the UK.

    A trawl of Google found this Times article of a similar vein but its not the one I read.
    http://tinyurl.com/6zozc2

    Talking of Green Black Cabs, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh drives his own Black Cab around the city of London as its the perfect cover for getting around unoticed. It has also been powered by LPG since 1998 according the website of Her Majesty The Queen. Scroll down to 1998 http://tinyurl.com/6jn67ut ( I wonder if she did a Dreamweaver course through Learn Direct )

  • Peter Hooper

    @ Malcolm Bulpit

    Before your next visit to Coventry, you may care to check the Number 12 bus timetable and fares, as this information is freely available on the internet

    The Warwick Road bus shelter(s) are on the bridge over the at the North end of the platforms; the walking route from the main station entrance is about 200m and is well signposted.
    .
    http://nxbus.co.uk/routes/coventry/C012/

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Peter,

    I do know where the Route 12 stop is in the Coventry station area, but for a casual traveller a 200 yard walk is not an simple interchange. Try lugging even a small suitcase up the steps to Warwick Road! Also, I am unsure if you have ever ridden the 12, but the route is far from direct, it is not that frequent and with the typical exorbitant UK bus fares charged on it a trip for more than two is little different to the taxi fare. In addition to regulary trips to Coventry I also regulary travel to Basel in Switzerland. It has half of Coventry’s population yet I walk out of the station to a purpose-built transport interchange where I can get cheap, frequent tram and bus connections to all parts of the city. You can get a taxi at Basel Station but there are not too many of them as there is little need for their use for most trips in the city. I suspect that the mass of taxis at Coventry Station and at other UK citie ststions is simply a reflection on the generally poor public transport interchange provision.

  • I so agree Malcolm. I did take the No 12 back in the morning and it took nearly half an hour, tks to a roundabout route that took us down suburban housing streets, and was utterly confusing when, in fact, there is a direct road between the Uni and the station. And I had great difficulty finding the No 12 stop, as Warwick Road is indicated with a sign at midriff level! One could ask, too, why you can’t access the station platform directly from that path since there are no ticket barriers, but instead Virgin has retained its huge fencing forcing people to walk another couple of hundred yards. I wonder how many have missed trains to London as a result of having to take that unnecessary detour.

  • Peter Hooper

    I have to admit that I grew up in Coventry and can remember (like yesterday) when there were only low railings down the steps / walkway from Warwick Road and at that time Warwick University University did not even exist.

    Oh those years, when I used to cycle up and down Gibbet Hill on my way to Kenilworth !

  • Stuart S

    I have found a similar bus problem in Manchester. I took a taxi from Piccadilly station to the Manchester Royal Infirmary. That was about a ten minute journey. To save my employer (a charity) further expense, I took the 147 ‘Oxford Road Link’ bus back. Despite the bus stop being outside the hospital front door, it took 25 minutes to reach Piccadilly after a rambling circular tour of the hospital and universities.

    I too wonder how taxi drivers in some cities make a living. They sit in massive queues at the ranks (and many big station ranks have ‘overflow’ queuing lanes). The time spent earning nothing must be immense.

  • David

    While on the subject of the dreadful no 12 bus, what about getting off the bus outside the station on the inward bound journey ? You have to cross a busy dual carriageway road, with no facilities for pedestrians at all except a central reservation. For old people, those with young children, the infirm – it’s a death trap, and just shows the contempt with which non car users are held in Coventry. And since this is where I’ve lived for the past 25 years, I can come up with many more examples of dreadful facilities for pedestrians/cyclists.
    But outside the main train station – this is appalling.

    David

  • Yes, good point. I was at Hastings the other day, where there is a very good bus/rail interchange, but clearly Coventry has not made any effort. There is not even a pedestrian crossing at the point you describe, and yet this is the main link between the uni and the station, where presumably quite a lot of students and staff come from. We really are in the dark ages on tranport, at times.

  • Dan

    Bus interchanges with stations are generally appaling in the UK – unless you can get off the train and SEE the bus / bus stop -preferably on the station forecourt or a short level distance up and down the road you are on, people will (unless they have good local knowledge) not go on a vague mystery tour to look for it.

    Obviously it is hard for all routes to pass the station, but routes to popular destinations (hospitals, universities, the town centre itself in many cases) could benefit from swinging by the actual forecourt. You’d think that was in the commercial interest of the bus company too.

    Some places have got a bit better in this regard, but the continental concept of the buses being parked up outside the station is pretty rare in the UK

  • RapidAssistant

    What Stuart and David are describing is pretty typical in the provicial cities – in Stirling there is a park and ride bus service made up of two buses which go on a merry go round tour of the city – making pointless ”stop and waits’ at various locations where no-one actually gets on or off…and one of the routes doesn’t actually serve the bus station/taxi rank/railway station, instead it terminates at the entrance of a shopping mall from where you have to negotiate a rabbit warren of corridors and escalators to get down to said transport hub…..

    Dundee doesn’t fare much better – the rather sad and neglected railway station is marooned at the intersection of the ring road and the busy approaches to the Tay Road Bridge, meaning that on-foot passengers have to cross a busy local road and a dual carriageway to reach it.

  • Stuart S

    Just to mention a few good UK train-bus interchanges:

    Reading has a large bus station in the forecourt, a bus indicator in the main ticket hall and a special parking area at the side entrance for Heathrow coaches. BUT- all this may go ! The current Reading rebuild is going to put all the buses by the station’s north entrance, away from the town centre.
    Basingstoke has a mere two bus stops just outside the station, but about 80% of all local bus routes stop there. There is also a bus indicator panel outside the ticket office entrance.
    Portsmouth Harbour has The Hard bus station just outside, together with Gosport & Ryde IOW ferries, a true transport interchange.

    Southampton is not too bad, with a regular free bus link to shops and ferries, plus other bus routes to most of the city. You do, however, have to know which side of the station to exit for your particular bus.

    Winchester is passable as well !

  • Firstly striking is never the correct way to address such issues, but there are a huge number of issues that need addressing in Coventry.

    Number of rank spaces is approx 10% for the number of vehicles. You see drivers parked on double yellows waiting for a space. they could have been there 30 minutes or so before a space comes available for them to then be legally parked on a rank.

    The solution from the council was/is to expect drivers to driver around in circles till they find a space on one rank or another.

    This would lead to many drivers just being unlucky enough to not get a space for hours, but use fuel and add to pollution.

    How do the council’s educated decision makers, come up with such a hare brained solution.

    The solution is more rank space and less vehicles. The restriction of hackney carriages will not reduce overall taxi numbers as they will still increase, but the increase will come from private hire ( minicabs ) numbers increasing.

    There is a huge shortage of private hire vehicles in Coventry. As long as a driver can choose between Hackney and minicab then most would go for a hackney. Driver safety concerns being a major decision.

    We need a diverse range of private hire vehicles. The Coventry Council has refused to allow vehicles such as the Chrysler Voyager ( a vehicle used by huge minicab fleets in London ) because they have tinted rear windows. Why? If it’s good enough for the capital why has Coventry got a problem with this. There are many vehicles Coventry Council refuse. In fact ask the council for a list of approved private hire vehicles and you will be told to bring the vehicle physically to them so they can approve or refuse on a case by case basis. Difficult to do if you find a car more than 15 miles away from Coventry. Try telling a vendor you will buy the car once Coventry Council has seen and approved it.

    With Council policies such as these, is it any wonder drivers are frustrated.

    I have been driving taxis both minicabs an hackney for around 20 years, and currently have a taxi company in Coventry. Swift Cabs.

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