In support of… taxis

Here’s where I’m coming from with this one. Let me say it simply:

More regular cyclists means lower private car ownership, less congestion for taxis to deal with, and more non-car-owners taking taxi trips.

OK, now for the detailed bit…

An organisation called the London Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) – representing about a third of black cabs apparently, so a minority – has been railing against Transport for London (TfL)’s £913 million investment in cycling over this decade. They’re led by a bloke called Steve McNamara, who (when he’s not comparing cyclists to ISIS) complains that this is far too much money. It’s kicked up quite a fuss.

I’m not sure how much money he thinks should be spent to reducing the 145 deaths and 4496 serious injuries to cyclists, in London, in the last decade. He doesn’t say. And he doesn’t point out either that over the same period as that £0.9bn cycling spend TfL are allocating £34bn to other modes of transport. But rather than laying into taxi drivers, I actually want to use this post to support and (in a roundabout way) defend them.

Now I’m going a bit out of my comfort zone here. I’ve had run-ins with taxis, including one serious accident (he pulled a U-turn without signalling as I filtered outside stationary traffic, wiped me out, and drove off after giving false information, illegally). But you can attribute that to us both being in a hurry. Generally, although there isn’t an additional driving competency test to be a cabbie (the Knowledge tests wayfinding, not driving skill – which means cabbies are no less or more qualified than anyone else with a cat B license), cabbies are fairly aware of their surroundings. And they’re used to driving near bikes. This means that when finely judging risk – as I have to do every second on the road as a cyclist, something I barely have to bother with when I’m driving – I am more worried by a tourist in a private car than a taxi.

So I’m happy to share the roads with cabs. But it seems a minority of them don’t really reciprocate that – in fact they hate cyclists – and I really, really can’t see why.

The argument against bikes, from the taxi cab, is two-pronged as far as I can tell: that bikes clutter up the road, slowing traffic, and secondly that bikes take fares away from taxis. Let’s look at those:

Do bikes clutter up the road? Well in a word, no! On a typical zone 1-3 trip, even on Mrs. LJP’s clunky old sit-up-and-beg bike, I’ll overtake every vehicle along the way except motorbikes. And that’s without jumping lights, overtaking unsafely, or breaking a sweat. Congestion is just so bad that I can’t help it, something the data proves. So I don’t cause congestion, I leapfrog it. That row of stationary cars with a single person in on the A11? Those aren’t bikes, they’re, well.. cars.

Ah! Say the drivers at this point: Bikes are causing that! By taking road space! So if only we built more roads! Well… most of the vehicles on the roads are still private cars, and each one takes the space of 4-10 bikes, depending on the traffic conditions, so I think we could make our own minds up on that one. Not that we need to: TfL have said, officially, that they are simply unable to wring any more space out of London’s roads for private cars [link 2]. In the next decade-and-a-half, London will gain an extra million-and-a-half-people. That’s why they’ve been investing heavily in bikes, walking, and public transport for the last 10 years. It isn’t that they’ve suddenly become hippies – I’ve met a fair few of them and they’re all pretty small-C conservative – but because, as engineers they make decisions based on evidence, and the simple fact is there isn’t any more space to use in London, and cycling, public transport and – yes – taxis are the most efficient use of that space, not private cars.

Secondly do bikes take fares away from taxis? Well taxi fares are under pressure from minicabs and Hailo, but that’s nothing to do with cycles (although it is a lot to do with private car use in the centre of London again) so let’s just note that it would be more appropriate for the LTDA to focus their ire on that and move on. I suppose we can split
taxi fares into two types – regular short hops during the day/evening, in central London, and longer trips that happen occasionally. Taxis prefer the first type as it’s a much better income stream – more predictable and less hassle (fair enough).

Well if city workers are choosing to use bikes over taxis, presumably because it’s cheaper, quicker, and more convenient, then that’s a pretty damning indictment of taxis’ levels of service. And does the LTDA think it’ll win these customers back by ranting at them? Doubt it.

This leads onto the second point about bikes and taxi fares – cyclists are also taxi customers – and big ones. Car ownership has been declining in every London borough, for two decades – but driving licence registrations have held steady. So how do all these non-car-owners get about? Well, our daughter is nearly a year old, and we walk, we cycle (without her), we use public transport, we hire cars for longer trips and, for shopping trips etc, – guess what – we take taxis! Now at the moment our daughter is small enough that’s not a problem, it works well. But in a year from now, we’ll need to cycle with her for some trips – if its safe enough to do so. If it isn’t we can’t afford lots of taxi trips to take her to the nursery etc – and we’ll be forced to buy a car. And then we’ll probably never take a taxi again; why would we when we have a car?

Put really simply, more regular cyclists means lower private car ownership, less congestion for taxis to deal with, and more people taking taxi trips.

So I’ll ask it again: why is the LTDA so against cyclists?

Not minicabs?
Not Hailo?
Not unlicensed mopeds?
Not private cars?

These are all far bigger inconveniences to their working lives, and far bigger threats to their livelihood – but the LTDA have picked on cyclists – why? The simplest explanation to me is they just don’t like bikes. It’s visceral, it’s illogical, and it’s short-sightedly picking on the one group of other road users who ought to be natural allies. If I was a cabbie, especially an LTDA member, I’d be spitting teeth at LTDA’s failure to spot a natural ally, and work with them. But hey, it takes all sorts… right?

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  • Josh

    A lot of good points made in this article!