As I sat in the back of an Uber car this morning at Holborn, stuck in traffic that would have been avoided by any Black Cab driver by skipping along Guilford Street, it dawned on me what all the fuss is about. The knowledge, that sense of urgency and enthusiasm, the smart little turning circle and iconic design that was so exciting for me as a child that going in a cab was actually the most exciting part of coming to London, has real value. It's time to re-write laws for the digital age and support the iconic London Taxi.
I confess that when I'm in the back of a mini cab, I've occasionally felt a little resentful that an empty black cab can use a bus lane passing me, a paying client in a legitimate public conveyance late for a meeting. In fact I said as much on twitter to the horror of my advisory team who, along with all the political classes swoon in the gaze of cabby's believing them to be, quite literally, key opinion formers and electoral suicide to piss off. But by virtue of that tomfoolery, may my next comment to be deemed totally genuine. I was wrong - cabbies, exhaustively trained to drive safer wheelchair friendly £40,000 vehicles, need protection and deserve all the breaks they can possibly get.
We've all read how Uber is unfairly undercut London operators by opting out of the UK tax regime. We need to fix this. Especially as Travis Kalanick CEO of Uber has a target of 42,000 Uber drivers in London - approximately 65% of minicabs in London. Compare this to the 22,597 licensed taxis and you start to see the impact to the Treasury alone.
Hailing and eHailing - It's Not The First Time There's Been Disruption
In terms of the business model - Taxi's and Ubers are the same - drivers own the cars and they are in effect mini-businesses. The problem is - Black cab drivers operate as small businesses against a marketplace built for business efficiency. Uber zeros it's costs by using technology to connect users to cabs, traditional Taxi drivers rely on finding users hailing - and this creates a further inefficiency... also Uber model of driver-referral and use of rating technology makes them instantly self-governing in terms of safety standards - which get's over some of the concerns people have. It's a business focused on customer experience in terms of price. As an entrepreneur I admire it's curves.
The brand of London Taxi driver has continued to be one of hard-working self-run business, they've accepted minicabs, it's time to accept new technologies (as three London drivers did when they invented Uber rival Hailo). I believe that London Taxi's need to change with London - not losing tradition, but realising that they still have a market in their monopoly on hailed-pickups. They also have a monopoly on 'The Knowledge' - most Londoners know that a taxi driver won't get you stuck in traffic as often as an Uber driver or mini-cab driver through their lack of need for often un-smart-smart devices or GPS.
Let's not forget the minicab wars of the 1960's (if you have forgotten it then I think that's case and point) - using a 1869 Carriage Act loophole a company Carline that phoning a central office was not 'plying for hire', technology was allowing entrepreneurs to operate a door to door service. The end of this chapter in London carriage history was won by the Black Cab.
Disruptive Technology Is Here, And It Won't Stay Put
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Taxi drivers probably need to accept the future of Uber being here to stay, as they did with minicabs (who they have now joined together with to protest Uber). Let's not forget that as recently as 2009 there have been protests by black-cab drivers over minicabs - when their business was licenced and formalised to make them safer.
When taxi drivers held their strike there was a side-effect of a 850% increase in downloading Uber - the effects of publicity through the sheer promotion of the brand. It showed people that there is an alternative to the classic taxi, which many people don't use because of price. Most cycle, walk, take the bus or tube for this very reason.
The London Taxi is an icon, and a brand - but it's one that benefits from promotion by virtue of it's history. Think of the films, magazines and tourist promotion it gets every year globally. The taxi benefits from being allowed to use bus-lanes, it benefits from being licenced and therefore has a brand of user-safety.
We Cannot Stifle Advances In Technology, But The Ball's In Your Court Uber
The answer to this problem is tax. The key way to make it fairer for London Taxi Drivers, without shutting down on innovative technologies and businesses is to ensure they all play by the same rules. Peter Hendy was right to issue Uber a licence, drivers are regulated by the Public Carriage Office. In the same stroke of being given the right to operate - they need to play by the rules of London's tax system.
Now, TfL does not have the power to judge where a company pays tax, but as Mayor I would be constantly fighting to ensure companies pay tax due to the city (and country). Steve Wright, chairman of the Licensed Private Hire Car Association (LPHCA) highlighted that VAT changes this January mean taxes on digital services in the EU are now charged based on the customer's location - the ball is now in Uber's court to comply with this.
In short, we cannot cripple innovative technologies (imagine a London without ATM machines) - but we do need to make the playing field fair for small businesses. Labour's cynical headline grabbing approach to potentially banning Uber is defeatist - it forgets that it's politics' fault for not updating the tax system to meet the challenges of today's world. We've seen the same true in the world of surveillance and social networks - the pace of change is fast in the digital corporate world, and we need to ensure legislation moves with the times too.
The London Card - Giving Back To Londoners, Supporting London's Business
A proposal that I will be building upon as my campaign unfolds - The London Card will also benefit cab drivers - whilst making getting around London more convenient for the people that live here. It seems crazy that so much of London's transport is still fragmented - and that there's no additional bonus for being a resident.
The London Card would be a universal card for Londoners to allow them lower cost access to many elements of living in London - taking advantage of 'crowd buying' to make eating out cheaper, but also drive more business to restaurants and shops; to unifying transport - from Boris Bikes, to River Transport - to London Taxi's. I would be the first to use The London Card - and I would lobby Assembly Members, Government Ministers, MPs and public figures to be too.
As an intermediate step to this plan and as another step to helping London's taxi drivers, I would work with Transport for London to make further use of Oyster Cards - allowing them to be used with London's taxi's.
I feel that rather than preserving a status-quo, where London's roads get jammed up because people's livelihoods are on the line is no way to treat Londoner's. Often disputes are due to point scoring or small interests - in the case of taxi drivers demonstrating, it's not the technology that's causing the problem, even if it's the cause.
London's Black Cab drivers are resilient - we still have bank staff despite the ATM, but more than this - London, and it's visitors love Taxis, they are like iconic crows of London's streets (if they leave the city will fall). Taxi drivers must recognise apps are here to stay. If the 60's cab wars are to go by where the telephone was the disruptive technology, we must realise technologies are here to stay, and even they evolve. London's government must ensure it's as hard working as the taxi driver or app developer who often ply their trade for extended and during unsociable hours - to keep pace with change. We must enforce the law and ensure we adapt to the world around us with the agility of app developers and the insight of a driver with the knowledge.
One thing is certain this rare breed of Londoner is here to stay too, and I as Mayor will stand by them and help preserve this resilient, iconic industry.