To the millions of tourists who visit London each year, black cabs are as much a symbol of the capital as Tower Bridge or Buckingham Palace. And since the demise of the Routemaster bus, they vie with the yellow cabs of New York and the gondolas of Venice as the world's most iconic mode of transport.
But black-cab drivers – held in such high esteem for their flawless knowledge of the London streets and humourous banter – are feeling under threat. And there are growing fears that they will stop at nothing to protect their monopoly of picking up customers off the street from minicabs with sat-nav.
Earlier this year, hundreds of drivers protested at a scheme to allow minicabs to run a rank in Leicester Square. Their blockade cut off Trafalgar Square, The Mall, Downing Street and the Strand, stopping traffic for more than an hour.
Last week, Heathrow Airport was forced to abandon plans to allow some minicab firms to operate from its terminals after black-cab drivers threatened to bring the airport to a standstill by blockading it. But most worrying was a guest appearance by the RMT union's Bob Crow who turned up at a meeting for angry cabbies at one of the airport's car parks.
Rules state that minicabs have to be booked, rather than hailed from the street or hired at a rank, an honour reserved only for the Hackney carriage. But under the scheme proposed by Heathrow's operator BAA, two minicab firms, Addison Lee and One Transport, would have been allowed to run a booking system directly from the airport.
Black-cab drivers did not take kindly to this threat to their territory. "Obviously, there was a lot of concern among the guys who work the airport regularly," Steve McNamara, a spokesman for the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association (LTDA) told the Independent. "We told BAA that if they had gone ahead with the plan, they would have been in dispute with us and we would have taken whatever action necessary that we thought assisted our cause."
A source close to the talks said that although BAA was keen to stand firm over the proposals, several of the airlines were nervous about the potential disruption to Heathrow from a blockade and demanded a swift resolution. As a result, BAA backed off. The decision has caused political alarm. "There are clearly issues here that need to be resolved so that we can have fair competition for both sides," said shadow transport minister and London MP Stephen Hammond. "It is always a regret if people appear to be using industrial muscle to blackmail, rather than negotiating."
However, Mr McNamara disagreed that the capital's cabbies were too quick to use the threat of direct action. "It is not something we do on a frequent basis and we have to be severely pushed to do it," he said. "On both occasions we have done it, we really were at the end of our tether. We do meet with the authorities in question to negotiate and most of the time we're only asking what is reasonable. Heathrow was a perfect example."
Even before February's blockade, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, must have been well aware of the long arm of the black-cab lobby. Anthony Browne, an adviser to Mr Johnson, found himself on the wrong side of London's black-cab drivers. Mr Browne wrote an article, lambasting London's them as a "white working-class mafia holding the capital to ransom". It led to a stream of hate mail. He was then called up by a "Mr X", promising a big scoop from the Ministry of Defence. When he was greeted by the contact, he was taken to a pub, where four men dressed as Santa Claus proceeded to take pictures of him. He was informed he had won Taxi magazine's "Prat of the Year" award and promptly found it impossible to hail a cab.
But in the light of growing competition, the threat to the position of black-cab drivers is not going away. While minicabs were traditionally derided as dirty and the drivers almost certain to need minute-by-minute navigational advice from their passenger, the advent of a licensing system and the invention of the sat-nav have seen the use of minicabs shoot up. Around 1.4 million minicab journeys are now made in London each week, just 400,000 journeys behind those made by traditional black cabs, which had almost all the market in the 1960s.
The London Chamber of Commerce has calculated that black cabs are among the most expensive in the world, with the average fare in London twice that of cab journeys elsewhere in Britain. There are feelings in City Hall that traditional cabbies have failed to keep up with the competition. "The private-hire trade is throwing down the gauntlet to the black-cab industry," said Kulveer Ranger, the mayor's transport director. "The black-cab industry has a great heritage with London. It is important we treasure that, but also build on it so that it is competitive in a changing environment."
As for the minicab fraternity, they are biding their time. "Our tactic is to improve and let the public decide," one executive told the Independent. "If this is the tactic that the taxi trade is employing, we should just hand them more rope. They're acting like dinosaurs. They used to describe minicab drivers as rapists and robbers, now they're doing this.
"It doesn't achieve anything for us to start a war – the public have a propensity to support these iconic things. But taxi drivers have taken their eye off the ball. They think they can rule forever, but it didn't work for Woolworths, and it won't work for them."Reuse content