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These London taxi drivers have made an app like Uber to save black cabs

The app has been built by black cab drivers to allow passengers to book and pay for a black cab like they would through Uber

Hazel Sheffield
Monday 14 August 2017 07:27 BST
Founders and members of the Taxiapp co-operative: Scott Walsey, David Garness and Sean Paul Day
Founders and members of the Taxiapp co-operative: Scott Walsey, David Garness and Sean Paul Day (Taxiapp)

Sean Paul Day was a psychotherapist before he became a black cab driver 18 years ago.

“I’ve probably given more therapy to passengers than I ever did to patients,” he laughs. Recently he’s added another profession to his CV. Day is the co-founder of Taxiapp. The founders, who are all black cab drivers from Hackney, London, claim this is the only ethical taxi app among the competition - and the only one that gives black cabbies a fair chance against the aggressive pricing of Uber and similar apps.

The industry sorely needs a digital platform to compete with Silicon Valley upstarts. The number of black cabs on the road has been declining since hitting a peak in 2011. Transport for London licences for private hire cars outnumber those for black cabs by more than four to one. “The black cab trade is a vital industry in London, it’s the only taxi trade not losing money,” Day says. “It’s a travesty to see this iconic taxi go from London.”

Taxiapp allows passengers to book and pay for a black cab like they would through Uber. Rather than a fixed price, the fare is always decided by the meter. Payment can be taken via the app or in the cab, in cash or by card since October 2016, when London Mayor Sadiq Khan introduced card readers to Hackney carriages as part of his taxi plan.

When Taxiapp relaunches in October it will come with a new feature to protect the ritual of hailing a cab. Users will be able to see on the app how many black cabs are waiting at a rank or on the street so they can go out and hail a car, without the need to pre-book.

Day says black cab drivers felt hailing in the street was a liberating way to travel: “Everyone is booking taxis on phones, which takes away from the street hail. If you lose the street hail, you take away that sense of freedom and you leave people without options. What happens if your phone dies or you lose it?”

TaxiApp, like the industry, faces tough competition. Uber, founded in 2009 in San Francisco, California, is now valued at around $69bn (£53bn), according to Bloomberg. Lyft, also headquartered in San Francisco, distinguishes itself with a reputation for being fairer to drivers. Hailo was founded in the UK but has since merged with mytaxi and sold to Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz, in 2013. Then there’s Gett, founded by two Israeli entrepreneurs, that operates in 100 cities worldwide and recently secured $300m (£229m) in funding from Volkswagen.

Mytaxi and Gett also use black cabs. “Many drivers think [Gett] is the devil within," Day says. "They use black cabs but they don’t have any loyalty to them because they are beholden to the investors and the shareholders, not the drivers. The driver has to shoulder the commission and sometimes they inflate prices.”

Taxiapp is the only taxi app owned by the drivers in a co-operative. Black cab drivers, who have always been self-employed, pay a £20 a month subscription fee to appear on the service. Day and nine other founders paid a year’s worth of subscription money upfront to cover development costs and get the app up and running. Since then, 1,600 drivers have signed up, out of a potential 22,000 across London. There have been 3,200 downloads of the app by customers.

Taxiapp “extols the virtue of the meters”. Black cab drivers do not offer fixed prices, but Taxiapp can reduce prices through promo codes. “We believe it’s a more reliable service,” Day says. “Because we pay the meter price, there is no incentive to not complete that job.”

Some have argued that Uber also uses a metered service because Uber gives an estimated fare and then charges an amount dependent on the eventual distance and time of the journey, rather than the fixed price offered by minicabs.

It’s harder to argue that black cabs are good value compared to Uber, which usually offers a cheaper service. London’s taxi market has for a long time been divided into two tiers between black cabs, which cost a premium, and minicabs, which are cheaper but must be booked. According to a report by Policy Exchange, Uber disrupted this ecosystem by flooding the road with cars, increasing the likelihood of accidents on the roads and forcing down the price of fares.

“With the traction that Uber was gaining I thought imminently that we would be gone, because they were buying growth, rather than earning it,” Day remembers of the early days of Uber. The Uber surge system has since been reported to be hackable by drivers who collude to stay off the road until higher surge pricing comes into effect, costing passengers more.

Taxiapp allows black cabs to have the same accessibility and convenience as Uber, by providing an on-demand, cashless service. Passengers get the added advantage of knowing their money is going into the pockets of local cab drivers and circulating in the London economy, rather than being transferred overseas to fill the pockets of foreign investors.

Black cab drivers are also contributing to the maintenance and upkeep of London roads by paying road tax. A report by Policy Exchange recommended that Uber should pay road tax in the UK to compensate for the number of drivers flooding the streets. “Private hire vehicle operators should be required to be based in the UK for tax purposes,” the report said. “They must pay full UK tax on their UK profits, and UK VAT where applicable, for the upkeep of the roads on which they entirely depend.”

Day says the premium charged by black cabs is a fair reflection of the cost of maintaining the vehicle and travelling on London roads, rather than a fare artificially calculated by how many cars are on the road. He says: “It’s very difficult because we are competing with predatory pricing. So we have to extol the virtues that this is the cost of running a purpose built vehicle.”

When it comes to the benefit for the passenger, does the future of Taxiapp - and the black cab - rest on the goodwill of passengers switching back from Uber? “On a Saturday night, people don’t care too much how they get home. They don’t ask if it’s regulated or legal and I understand that,” Day says. “But there’s something about Taxiapp that is empowering. The energy for it is good - you’re actually doing something that is positive for the industry. That is the momentum.”

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