Uber is overwhelming – London black cabs’ only future is tourism and tetchy Tories

The black cabs may never surrender, but they will be defeated by the internet

Matthew Norman
Thursday 08 October 2015 11:11
London taxi's line up on The Mall during a protest against a new smart phone app, 'Uber' on 11 June 2014 in London, England.
London taxi's line up on The Mall during a protest against a new smart phone app, 'Uber' on 11 June 2014 in London, England.

As the dust gingerly settles on the pithy exchange between the London Mayor and a London cabbie, this question must be asked: Is Boris Johnson the new Winston Churchill?

In fact, Boris posed the question himself last year. Admittedly, he did it in code via his biography The Churchill Factor. But it didn’t take Bletchley’s finest to decrypt this opus as a subtle ruse intended to hint at a compelling comparison with a wild-but-brilliant Conservative maverick who progressed to power while earning lavishly from journalism.

Both men also achieved high repute, as you know, for their exquisite drolleries. “I may be drunk,” Winston famously told a reproving Bessie Braddock, “but you are ugly – and I shall be sober in the morning.” “Why don’t you fuck off and die,” said Boris to the cabbie, “and not in that order?” Rather than get sucked into close textual analysis by wondering how a deceased taxi driver could be expected to fuck off, let us merely observe that Winnie and Boris, wit-wise, are peas in a pod.

The catalyst for Boris’s Wildean thrust, just as with Churchill’s, was a rebuke. On drawing up beside the Mayor’s bicycle in Islington, the driver expressed umbrage at Boris’s failure, as Transport For London overlord, to defend his brethren against the irresistible rise of Uber. “You’re one of them, mate,” he yelled. “That’s what you are. One of them.”

Whether Boris is really a fifth columnist who publicly feigns to be the cabbie’s chum while privately belting out Uber Uber Alles in his bath, I cannot say. One could spend a lot of time researching this and other aspects of the War For London’s Roads, such as the legal challenge to Uber trundling towards the Supreme Court. But what would be the point when, effectively, the war is over?

The black cabs may never surrender but they will be defeated, as all archaic things are, by the digital tsunami known as the internet. Who wants to pay £25 for a 15-minute ride in a black cab, generally driven by someone whose glacial disdain only fades in the last 23 seconds as tip time approaches, when they can pay £12 (and no tip) for the same ride in an immaculate car driven by a friendly, chatty young Muslim?

Boris may be “one of them” to the Uber-hating cabbie. But being what Mrs Thatcher knew as “one of us”, he understands the simplistic dictates of market economics. A service that is cheaper and more pleasant than another will quickly drive that other service into obsolescence. Already, Uber is the Waitrose du jour for middle-class dullards like myself, who lecture people about the splendours of pressing a few smartphone keys and waiting no time at all for a deliciously fragranced Toyota Prius.

Earlier this week, my mother rang to report having been “took bad” with her back in a shop. The minicab controller had quoted her a 20-minute wait (35 minutes in human time), she had no hope of scaling the height required to enter a black cab, so please could I get her an Uber? It arrived in four minutes and the driver patiently fetched her from the shop and helped her into the house. For a journey that would have cost £20 in a black cab, £9 was deducted from my bank account.

You appreciate the wounded sensibilities of the black-cab fraternity. Anyone who has seen Jack Rosenthal’s glorious television play The Knowledge understands the misery of all that schlepping around on a moped, learning Manor House to Gibson Square and the 87 million other routes, to satisfy some little Hitler at the Metropolitan Hackney Carriage Office. And then along comes a 22-year-old with a Sat Nav and no clue of how to get from Leicester Square to Piccadilly Circus and, strike a light, guv’nor, the game’s bleedin’ up.

If I didn’t have absolute empathy for them, I’d point out the delectable rough-justice irony that it is the Alis, Mohammeds and Asifs of Uber, the sons of the Muslim immigrants whom previous generations of cabbies seldom stopped ranting about wanting to have deported, who are the victorious shock troops in this war. But I do, so I won’t.

As more of us compress our lives into smartphones, it is inevitable that the black cab, like all Darwinian victims, will become an endangered species, though no one wants them to become extinct. Certainly, recalling David Mellor’s trenchant Socratic dialogue with another driver (“little man”), the black cab’s significance as host to amusing spats involving irritating Conservatives cannot be overstated. And tourist London needs them, just as it needs red buses and the phantasmal possibility of meeting Prince Philip – a black-cab driver himself when younger, literally as well as in spirit – outside Buckingham Palace.

If the Mayor wants to build bridges with the cabbying community, he should propose a 10-year plan to adapt this once-thriving trade into a heritage industry, cutting the numbers from almost 20,000 to 200 and heavily subsidising the chosen few to delight visitors, as the Venetian authorities do with their obsolete yet impossibly romantic gondolas.

Whether or not he adopts my proposal, Boris can congratulate himself on emerging intact from an incident that would have been fatal to the hopes of other politicians. There is a precedent, as he of all people will know. The last time a power-hungry Tory maverick survived a potentially lethal encounter with a taxi was in New York in December, 1931, when a yellow cab knocked down Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue.

Can anyone else hear the Twilight Zone theme striking up to serenade this New Churchill on his journey (£40 including tip by black cab, £18 in an Uber) from Islington to Downing Street?

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