I’ve had to endure a number of hardships as a journalist, free holidays to California and Blackpool, complimentary dinners at dazzling restaurants, and Nandos, a week cycling up near vertical hills with an Olympic cycling instructor because they thought I was a sports correspondent. So when I was told that I’d be getting taxis to and from work for the next few days, my only answer was an enthusiastic “Yes g’vnor, but I won’t go Sarf of the river, mate”. Which is maddening given I live in Tooting.
TFL rocked the boat when they announced that ride hailing app Uber’s license wouldn’t be renewed. As it stands Uber is over from tomorrow, 30th September. They’ve appealed the ruling so it might take up to a year before we finally have to call a taxi for them, but surely it is time to investigate alternatives. Like the martyrs of old, I started downloading apps.
Because this is serious science, I would only travel between the same two points, during rush hour on fixed tarrifs using cab apps. Thomas Edison eat your heart out.
GETT – £19.51 (Tooting to Wandsworth)
“I’m not being racist but…” is always a red flag and old-school cabbie Roger has breezily deployed it depressingly early on into our journey, “A number of Uber drivers are Asian and if you take a car at night and he’s got a beard, well, you don’t know that driver’s who he says he is”. It’s hard to see past what I’m pretty sure is clear-cut racism, but his point is more or less the same as one of TFL’s main gripes with Uber. You don’t necessarily have the security of knowing who the driver of a car booked from an app really is. Unless you get Gett.
Gett is the late but handy solution from London’s black cabs. If you book a car on the app you will get a fully licensed black cab with all the advantages that that brings, from a turning circle based on the roundabout outside the Savoy, to room for a push or wheel chair to the cheery casually racist driver replete with his knowledge-engorged hippocampus (the cabbie exam, The Knowledge, is so data-heavy that Roger claims brain surgeons can tell “just from looking at my brain” that he’s a London cab driver (it’s not clear how often he’s put this to the test).
“Of the last 30 years I’ve been driving here, 25 years were amazing but the last 5 have been horrendous”. Coz Uber. Cab drivers’ once unassailable position as capital top-dogs has been dealt a blow by the technology they refused to embrace. Who hasn’t tried to use a credit card, persuade a cab to go to Brixton, had cars with their for-hire lights lit drive past because they don’t look ‘right’?
The chickens may have come home to roost, but now technology like Gett is putting them on a more even footing. It’s a simple app, very easy to get going and the cab arrived within 5 minutes. Roger’s route was second-to-none, taking all the right wiggles to miss the traffic, hippocampus clearly working overtime. But I couldn’t help wondering if it was worth nearly twice the Uber fare?
ADDISON LEE – £14.65 (Wandsworth to Tooting)
Before there was Uber there was ‘Addie-lee’s’, the smart minicab firm that introduced us to the centre-ground between angry black cab drivers and those bleakly scruffy minicab offices that are liberally dotted around South London high streets. Addison Lee’s fleet of sleek black people carriers have seen them become firm of choice for big corporations like the BBC and even got them a shout-out in One Direction’s Midnight Memories!
The app was pretty simple to download and sign up for and the car arrived in 5 minutes. It’s pretty neat they allow you 5 minutes of waiting time, allowing you time to get your bits together, lock the door, realise you’ve forgotten your headphones, unlock the door, set the alarm off and so on.
Besmir has been in the UK for 16 years since he arrived from Albania. His dream of being a writer had converted into second best, being a taxi driver, which had allowed him to buy a house in West London with a Mercedes in the drive, which is more than most writers I observe ruefully. He moved close to Heathrow so he could get the flight traffic. “It’s a great life, I’ve made a nice life here and its’ a job I love”. One-D apparently got a year’s free Addison Lee’s travel in return for their moment place in pop history so I ask if Besmir’s seen them around? “Nope, never, but I have had Theodore Roosevelt’s great great great grandson in the car the other day, so that was pretty cool”. If geeky.
He was sympathetic to Uber’s 40,000 drivers “they aren’t paid enough, and it’s an expensive business to be in, but this can only hurt them” was his reasoning. It’s not that Addison Lee drivers have it all cushty, Besmir is forced to rent his car from Addison Lee, for instance, but he’d never want to go over to the ‘dark side’.
At £14.60 I thought the quality of the ride (you also get free wifi and phone charging) is high, and the company on this occasion was excellent too.
KABBEE – £15 (Tooting to Wandsworth)
“Wait, what’s with the seat covers?” was my first question on getting into the car. The faux leather, ill-fitting covers are weird and a little too like TV’s Dexter is preparing for a murder. “Oh that’s because people always get food on my upholstery” replies Chiemezie, and warming to his subject “they bring their stinky food into my car, they drop it on the seats and the floor then they wipe their filthy fingers on the covers”. I’m not sure if Chiemezie is OCD or jsut a part time serial killer, but it highlights the life of a driver, always meeting new people and always out for hire. “I don’t know how the Uber people do it for the amount they’re paid, it doesn’t make sense” he notes.
Kabbee is basically the Uber for non-Uber drivers. A network of minicab drivers and firms (Chiemezie works for Keen Group) it’s about the same cost as Addison Lee. The app is tricky to use and the signup process isn’t especially easy or intuitive. The wait time was over 20 minutes, too, which suggests they need to scale.
Nigerian Chiemezie is driving a Toyota Avensis “basically like a Prius, innit” and has been doing this for a year. Before this he spent 10 years as a postman, leaving when privatisation brought along too many changes to his once-secure career. Now he makes more money and he’s his own boss.
“If what TFL say about Uber is true then I don’t think they should be operating, but if Uber are bad then TFL has to do something about the black cabs. They have had it far too good for too long”. Unlike me, though, as I think I’m allergic to his car seats and I start a sneezing fit “see” he turns to me and says “handy that I’ve got the covers”.
UBER – £10.24 (Wandsworth to Tooting)
Given it’s all finishing for Uber, this is where it had to end. The app is remarkably simple, you log and watch the cars circling like worker drones. I put in the journey details and within 3 minutes Abegunde was sat waiting outside the office to escort me home.
TFL’s issue with Uber is that it lacks corporate responsiblity and there are underlying safety issues. The company employs ‘Greyball’ technology to avoid regulators, the Silicon Valley giant has also been slow at coming forward when it comes to passing on intel on serious criminal offences by drivers and faked medical certificates and background checks.
None of this is really an issue for Abegunde, “I’m happy being able to be my own boss” he explains, clearly unpeterbed by the numerous accusations of worker exploitation levelled at the app. The former healthcare worker moved into front-of-house security for City banks before starting at Uber a year ago. “I loved security, but this pays far better, I can work hard, in my own time and under my own control”.
Except that he’s also under the control of Uber’s own satnav system, which is clearly in getaway-car mode as it took the most convoluted route possible, somehow combining an ability to find and wait in every single traffic jam intersperced with short sprints up and down adjacent roads to no apparent end. Perhaps we had a regulator on our tail?
The car, a Prius, was in very good condition, smelt nice and the driver was chatty and friendly. The route was downright bizarre but for a tenner I simply couldn’t fault it. You do wonder how many Abegunde has to rack up before he can afford to clock off, though.
Uber have some serious questions to answer, but my week of taxi luxury pointed to other questions that we’re not asking. Like why are people being forced out of regular jobs, like former postie-turned-cabbie Chiemezie, into this dog-eat-Uber world of app-based whacky races? And why did TFL allow black cabs such an easy ride, charging Londoners so much over the market rate do that Uber became necessary? It’s clear that with the exception of racist Roger everyone else I met plying their trade feels this is a reputable living that pays better than the alternatives. The concensus was that Uber has it’s problems, but that they have given rise to an entire industry that is both beneficial and lucrative to Londoners and those involved. What’s more the rise of trackable, affordable, door-to-door alternatives to walking late at night or passing out in an unlicensed minicab must have saved lives and made Londoners safer.
Either way I’m grateful for a week spent putting my feet up as I commute into work, and will have plenty of bus rides to mull it over!
Originally posted on 29th September 2017. Uber’s licence expired on the 30th September and they are currently appealing. Some names have been changed to prevent nasty cab apps from ‘Grayballing’ their drivers!