They’re iconic. Their shape and styling is every bit as recognisably “London” as Big Ben or a double-decker bus. When I first started exploring the city I was so tempted to experience what I thought must be the quintessential taxi-going experience.
I’m not entirely sure what I expected, after all it’s still just a taxi, but even so I was disappointed!
It turns out the traditional London taxi – or “Black Cab” – is over-priced, inefficient and seemingly crewed only by unhappy, unhelpful and unwelcoming drivers.
Don’t expect a Black Cab ride to feature in your top 10 memories of your trip. In fact, don’t expect your average Londoner to get in a black cab at all.
But what’s gone wrong?
The Black Cab was once a by-word in professionalism and navigation. The legendary training of every driver in a pre-GPS world required them to gain “The Knowledge” before they could even be licensed to drive a cab. The process is notoriously arduous, requiring drivers to memorise the whole of the London road map.
That’s no mean feat. Fair enough that those who manage to master it be paid for their efforts. The problem is that that’s not part of the world we live in now.
When I arrived in London a decade ago, the original iPhone was fresh on the market. GPS devices existed, but they were expensive and not necessarily reliable etc. Hardly the sort of thing that was going to be thrown into every taxi.
But look at us now! Most of us have GPS devices in our pockets now, and with them, the means of summoning a rideshare when we need them.
The notion that anyone needs to learn the streets and shortcuts of London by heart is ludicrous. That they should have to do it and that we should have to pay them for it is even crazier.
Now ride-sharing hasn’t taken off in every city. Some cities – including London – have seen efforts to regulate against such services and to protect local services; other cities such as Hong Kong and Barcelona have taxi services good and cheap enough to make it difficult for disruptors to get a foothold.
But not London! London was ripe for disruption and here it’s Uber that has proved invaluable. Whatever you think of the company leadership’s ethics, their drivers are (in my experience) almost universally professional; their cars are clean, their attitude is great and so what if they haven’t invested years gaining “The Knowledge”? They’ve got GPS device like the rest of us!
And the price of a ride is likely to be only 30%-50% of what you’d pay for the same journey in a Black Cab.
How crazy is that?!
And yet, the beetle black cars continue to chug around central London; their rates unchanged, their drivers embittered, and it’s a mystery who’s using them!
I can only assume it’s you, the well-meaning tourists who just don’t know any better.
So I implore you: by all means, snap a pic of a traditional cab, but that’s all you need. Neither your taxi nor your London experience will be enhanced by paying for the privilege to ride in one.