After coronavirus, unnecessary black cab journeys are a luxury that none of us can afford

The climate column: As they reopen, every square metre of our city centre streets will be needed for social distancing. Cabs made up 60 per cent of all cars in London before lockdown. That can't go on

Donnachadh McCarthy
Friday 29 May 2020 15:03 BST
Boris Johnson says black cabs could be used to transport doctors and nurses

There is an unseen elephant in our cities transport systems, as we emerge from the Covid-19 pause - cab congestion. Cities cannot allow the cab industry to go back to business as usual f they are to provide the necessary space for people walking and cycling at a safe social distance when they reopen.

Go to almost any city in the world, before coronavirus, and you will have experienced city centres choked with cab jams. From Delhi to New York, our cities were clogged with taxis, blocking emergency vehicles and delaying millions of workers going to work by bus. What is worse, they are empty for about 50 per cent of the time on the road, while cruising for passengers.

London is a classic example. When I co-founded the campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists in 2013, after a terrible spate of cyclists being killed on London’s roads, people told me that the cab industry was our natural ally, as they were providing “public transport”. I was sceptical; cabs are basically privately-owned chauffeured cars for hire.

My scepticism was well placed: as we staged London’s first "Die-Ins", demanding protected cycleways and an end to blind-spot HGVs on the capital's roads, it was black cab drivers who proved to be the most vigorous opponents of even the smallest steps to protect people walking and cycling. They hired political lobbyists and launched judicial reviews to oppose new cycleways proposed by the then mayor, Boris Johnson. They bombarded the media and staged protest blockades. They distributed flyers with untruths about cycleways and warning businesses about “loss of trade”.

The head of the City of London Corporation transport committee told me that they had received death threats from black cabbies over proposals to make Bank junction car and cab free. The new London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and many cycle safety campaigners Twitter feeds were filled with sexist, racist and homophobic abuse from cabbies. I became concerned that their claim that cycling caused “increased congestion and pollution” was gaining traction. (The data, of course, absolutely shows this not to be so. Congestion and pollution along the new East-West cycleway in central London is down 15 per cent, according to City of London Corporation reports.)

In 2016, I decided to turn the tables and research what contribution cabs made to London’s congestion and pollution. What I discovered shocked me. According to London’s transport authority, in central London a staggering 60 per cent of all cars were cabs and they made up 40 per cent of all motor traffic. Each London black cabbie drives about 32,000 km every year. With 21,000 currently licenced, this equates to 672 million kilometres per year.

As those cabs are empty 50 per cent of the time, means that for about 336 million kilometres they will be running with only one passenger - the driver. If you include minicabs then this is likely to be over 600 million empty cab kilometres driven in London every year.

Despite the staggering contribution cabs make to congestion, they only carry a tiny 1 per cent of all trips taken daily in London. They are by far the most inefficient transport mode in our cities.

Government statistics say that in England, 71 per cent of cab journeys are under five miles, 46 per cent are between two and five miles, 25 per cent are under two miles and 5 per cent are under one mile. Almost all of these journeys can be completed by walking, cycling or by using public transport.

So what does all this mean for the world after Covid-19? Many cities, including Berlin, New York, Barcelona, Brussels and Bogota, have announced plans or are already implementing temporary schemes to reallocate road space from motorised traffic to people walking and cycling. In London, Sadiq Khan has announced a major "Streetspace" project to do just this. But if the cab industries are allowed to resume their former levels of activity and congestion, these cities would grind to a halt; cabs would simply devour a high proportion of the remaining space left for vehicles.

In the past some cities, such as New York, had introduced congestion charging for cab users. London removed the congestion charge exemption for minicab, but not black cab, drivers. They are exempted from both congestion and pollution charges, despite contributing to both these problems.

London's black cabs are allowed to cruise empty to pick up customers rather than having to use an app, have free access to bus lanes and can also use cab stands at stations. But this week the London Mayor’s office told me that Khan has no intention of removing any of these special privileges for black cabs, despite their impact on social distancing.

Cabs have a small but nevertheless important role to play in a city’s transport provision. One per cent of cab trips in London are taken by wheelchair users. They are also very useful in emergencies and for carrying heavy items for non-car owners. But far too many cab trips are still made by fit young people going on a night out or by executives on short work trips using expense accounts.

In a post Covid-19 world where every square meter of city centre streets will be needed for social distancing, unnecessary cabs are an unaffordable luxury. Cities should cut the number of licenced cabs and restrict usage to specified essential journeys and for disabled people. They should be required to go totally app-based, to end the congesting cruising for custom.

But cab drivers themselves must not be abandoned as their industry shrinks. City mayors should fund transition training programmes for them, for the many new jobs needed in the green recovery plan. Even if a new vaccine removes the need for social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the need for safe spaces for walking and cycling will remain. Cities should speed up the building of permanent cycleways now, in preparation, and apply congestion charges to individual cab users, as already happens in New York.

With visionary leaders, the Covid-19 crisis could lead to global cities that are cleaner, greener, safer, less-congested, low carbon and free of cab jams. The tragedy that has befallen many of our elderly and vulnerable could result in the positive protection of those same groups from premature deaths and disabling diseases caused by the polluting global cab industry.

Let’s do it. After coroanvirus, there's #NoGoingBack.

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