On a day when London’s black cab drivers brought gridlock to the city center, Lee Cox was stuck with his black cab in a garage with a broken AC. But he’d be out there, if he could. “There’s nothing broken with the service as it’s been for a hundred years,” he says. “The thing the apps try to do, it’s like nailing jelly to the wall.” Services like Uber claim to be offering him more work, he says, but “there’s only ever a certain amount of work for black cabs in London.”
Cox isn’t afraid of technology. You can find him on Twitter, @jackcabnory, which he checks when stationary on a Samsung smartphone affixed to his dashboard. He has regular fares who hail him that way, posting a Twitter message on arrival at Heathrow, including @hughbonneville, the actor who plays the patriarch on Downton Abbey. Cox is also part of a group of about 500 cab drivers who use Twitter to share information in a loose way: overcrowded cab stands, clubs that just released a tide of pedestrians into the night, and other tips.
The issue that brought the black cabs to Trafalgar Square, as he sees it, is consistency. Transport for London, the agency that issues hack licenses, requires cars that take metered fares be driven by licensed London cab drivers. Since Uber also offers a type of metered fare, Cox wants the ride to go to a licensed cabbie. “If there’s a law there, change it,” he says. “But don’t skirt around it.”
A company called Hailo, for example, offers a service in London it calls the “black cab app.” Enter your location, get a black cab. Cox doesn’t have a problem with Hailo, although he’s wary of the company’s attempt to move into the market for private-hire Mercedes. As he sees it, the protest now blocking London traffic isn’t about apps versus cabs but who gets to drive. Uber sees driving as a service; Cox sees it as a trade. “We know we’re not cheap, we know we’re not right for every situation. We are what we are,” he says. And what they are is very good at navigating a very confusing place.
In some cities taxi navigation is a collaborative process, with both passenger and driver consulting maps. Passengers in Washington, D.C., often have call out directions as they go. So, too, in the vast stretches of New York City outside the orderly grid of Manhattan. In London, however, all black cab drivers pass an exam at the end of a three-year licensing process. Training makes a black cabbie unstumpable, even on London’s tangle of roadways. Get in, call out a street, go.
The value of this training was already eroding even before Uber took its first London passenger. Britain is “turning into a Google nation,” says Cox.
Passengers in the U.S. already have low expectations of professionalism when they step into a cab. Here the driver is not plying a trade, he’s providing a service—the labor value of two hands on the wheel. London’s stringent licensing requirements create a barrier to entry for drivers. In exchange for learning how to navigate London as a professional, they earn a reliable living. This is true in Germany, too, a country in which a cab ride can offer travelers adjusted to grubbier taxis the disorienting spectacle of a clean Mercedes handled with a pair of driving gloves.
It’s a lovely thing to have a professional, knowledgeable, stress-free cab ride. But Cox’s problem is that it may not be so lovely that it’s worth what we pay for it. London’s black cab drivers don’t have an Uber problem. They have a Google problem.
“It’s a difficult scenario,” says Cox, “all of this kind of leading down to driverless cars.” This is the painful reality of creative destruction. It doesn’t care whether something is lovely or not.