The Black Cabbies' Blunder

As often is the case, the steady march of progress is being dragged to a halt by those unable - or unwilling - to keep up. The tempers of the black taxi drivers of London have been simmering for months, as the app-based private cab service Uber has become entrenched as the carriage of choice for most Londoners. For consumers, the rise of Uber is a perfect example of the free market at work: open competition for fares has brought about a service that is cheaper, more efficient, and in most instances more readily available. It is a triumph of technological darwinism - which is why the stultifying reaction of London’s black taxi drivers is not only perverse, but incredibly naive.

Buoyed, perhaps, by the sweeping support of strikes emanating from the leadership of the new old Labour Party, and no doubt egged on by a variety of poisonous unionistas, London’s ‘beloved’ cabbies have chosen to disregard modernisation in favour of sulking en masse and blocking key roads in the capital. No-one likes a whinger, especially not the stoic workers who doggedly traverse London every day, so it is unsurprising that the public have reacted less than favourably towards this epic feat of toy-chucking. Not content with adolescent posturing, the cabbies have now doubled down on their false sense of entitled outrage, petitioning TFL to interrupt the free market and impose additional, mind-numbingly pedantic bureaucracy on Uber and other app-based cab hire firms.

The lack of public support for their cause has been utterly predictable. Given that the vast majority of consumers using taxis in London work in industries where new technology offers a competitive edge, and the threat of disruptive entrants into their markets is a constant threat, it is wishful thinking on the part of the black cab drivers to hope for any sympathy. After all, they could choose to adopt new technology (the fabled ‘knowledge’ is wholly redundant now, thanks to GPS) and renegotiate their Hackney Carriage leases. By doing so their costs would be reduced enough to compete with Uber’s cheaper fares. But they won’t. Swept up in a delusional conviction that black cabs have the God-given right to monopolise the London taxi market, the drivers have wholeheartedly rejected modernisation and improvement of their service, and by doing so have essentially stuck two gout-riddled fingers up at the general public. 

In time, however, they will find that their pernicious behaviour comes back to bite them on their saggy behinds. They possess a misguided belief that they are kindred spirits of the swift-to-strike tube drivers, whose truculence London has to endure all too often. They are not. Whilst both sets of drivers operate in a cabal-like manner - the tube drivers only promote from within, and the ‘knowledge’ offers a simple method of controlling market entry - the effects of their striking are markedly disparate. Tubes are widely accepted to be the most cost-efficient means of getting around London, offering, in most cases, the quickest journey (however uncomfortable it may be) at a relatively cheap cost. They also have no natural competition, as the alternatives on offer are forms of transport with distinctively different qualities. Black cabs, on the other hand, are somewhat of a luxury; a mode of travel for those with money to spare or for travellers in a rush (traffic dependant). When the tube drivers strike it is a mammoth inconvenience; the bus network swiftly becomes logjammed and Londoners face a considerable increase in journey time no matter their alternate route, and a dramatic hike in price if they are forced to take a taxi. When the black cabs go on strike, people hop on the tube, or in a fit of irony - as Twitter seems to suggest - simply book an Uber. You will be hard-pressed to find a single Londoner for whom the inability to get a black cab is an inconvenience. You will find it relatively easy, however, to find one who considers the drivers’ actions to be puerile and counter-productive.

It seems facetious to tell a group of working adults to grow up, but that is exactly what the black cab drivers need to do. They do not possess an inherent right to force Londoners to use their antiquated, overpriced service in lieu of a cheaper, better, option. Their argument that they are a ‘national treasure’ and should therefore be afforded protective treatment is utter guff. Black cabs are like red telephone boxes - great for a tourist photo, but ultimately representative of a bygone era. If the drivers really care about London and its inhabitants, as they so claim, they need to get off the picket line and into the 21st Century. We are lucky enough, as British consumers, to live in a fine free market economy. The market always wins, and even if TFL do follow through and hamper Uber’s progress, it’s only a matter of time before the black cab goes the way of the horse and cart. Of course, they could just embrace modernity and upgrade their business model to offer a better consumer experience, but they won't - and that will be their downfall.