Thursday, 12 June 2014

Thoughts on Uber and black cabs

Today, cab drivers in London and across Europe staged a protest about Uber, the taxi service that allows you to order a cab using your smartphone. Cabbies caused traffic jams in the city centre by parking up and driving around slowly, while their spokesmen toured TV and radio studios explaining their grievance. Presumably they travelled by bike or Tube, to avoid their self-made traffic chaos. 

This was probably was one of the most ill-judged, counter-productive protests of all time, managing to annoy their customers while also giving their rival hours of free publicity. Uber are claiming 850% more app downloads than last Wednesday.

Black cabs aren't always black.

As in many cities, London's taxi fleet operates a sort of closed shop cartel, where only the select few are licensed by Transport for London to drive the iconic black cab, pick up passengers at the roadside and charge using a meter.  They must pass The Knowledge, a gruelling test of familiarity with London's roads. Operating in parallel since the 1960s are "mini cabs" which are also licensed by Transport for London. They are taxis, but they have to be booked in advance (they can't be hailed on the street) and the fare has to be fixed (they can't operate on a time/distance taximeter). Uber drivers and cars have been licensed as mini cabs, but the Uber app measures time and distance to calculate the fare so the black cabs argue that Uber are operating illegally. TfL have ruled in favour of Uber, but there's a legal appeal.

In theory that point of law about meters was the focus of today's protest, but in reality it's all about established players using laws and regulations to prevent new competitors. This is a sad, all-too-common story, and as always the customer is told that preventing competition is for his own good: you don't want these nasty, cheap mini cabs, you want a proper black cab driven by an experienced cabbie. The idea that customers might prefer to see both options then decide for themselves is always dismissed as dangerous nonsense.

The cabbies are bigging themselves up as a premium service offering the best cars, experienced drivers who know where they're going, a good safety record and the reassurance of the fine tradition of London Hackney Carriages. Who would swap that for an unknown driver in an inferior vehicle who may not know where he's going or even speak English? You might save a couple of quid, but quality is worth the price. 

That's the case for the cabbie. Unfortunately it ignores some important parts of the user experience. First, have you ever tried to hail a black cab on a Friday or Saturday night? Searching optimistically for the yellow light as the familiar shape beetles into view, only to see that it's not lit - cab already taken. And the next one. And the one after that. Perhaps you should walk a little way? Maybe you'll have more luck on another, busier, road? So you wander around, guessing at where the cabs might be lurking, desperately seeking a vacant one, hoping that some other bastard doesn't nick it before you. London's latitude and climate being what they are, this frustrating and sometimes pointless game of hide-and-seek is often played out at night, in the rain. 

Dark, wet, no taxis. A typical London scene.

Even if you find one, there's no guarantee they'll accept your fare, especially if you're going "south of the river". They aren't allowed to refuse, but some do especially when they know they can easily find an alternative fare. I expect lone women particularly enjoy this sport. A premium service? Those of us living far from the city centre also find a distinct lack of black cabs roaming the streets.

The mythical lands "South of the River", viewed safely from afar.

Lack of black cabs at night is also why people end up in illegal minicabs. No one starts out thinking "I really want to get into a suspect vehicle for an unknown price with a dodgy geezer soliciting passengers on the street," but when you're tired, cold, wet, and fed up of looking for a black cab that isn't there, any option to get home starts to look appealing.

"Would you like a ride home in my car? It's very nearly roadworthy."

With Uber, you summon a cab using your phone without moving from your seat in the office, pub, or eatery. You track its journey to you, then you just wave goodbye, walk outside and straight into your cab. There is no walking the streets after dark hoping that you find a cab before some ne'er-do-well finds you, and no wondering whether the cabbie wishes to take you where you want to go.

Then when you reach your destination, the cabbie will want paying. That's fine, but some of them only accept cash, so if you've had a good evening and are now all spent up...bad luck! Yet more fiddly annoyance for the customer. With Uber, you just pay automatically using the app: cab arrives at your destination, you get out, you're done. Have a nice evening!

Having a driver who knows where he's going definitely helps, but let's be honest: a competent driver with a Sat Nav is going to get there most of the time, too. Sat Nav works pretty well. Even if the black cab gets you there 2 minutes quicker, it's a hollow victory if it took you 15 minutes in the rain to find the cab. With navigation apps like Waze which know where the traffic jams are right now, the Sat Nav may even be faster. For most journeys, the main difference is going to be all the mucking about finding a cab then paying for it, and that's where the black cabs are letting their customers down.

This isn't meant to be an advert for Uber. I don't want London's black cabs to disappear or go out of business. But realistically, it's hard to see how they can compete in a market by offering a "premium service" which is often a complete pain in the arse for their customers. Not when someone else is offering a much better service by removing all the annoying bits. 

Cabbies will continue to know London better than mini cab drivers and their vehicles will still be more spacious and convenient, not to mention wheelchair accessible. But to pitch yourself as a top quality service you have to stop expecting your customers to jump through hoops. Rather than moan, block the streets, or try to scare people about what might happen if they get a minicab, cabbies should think about why so many of their customers are enthusiastically taking their business elsewhere. Then they could try to win those customers back, rather than forcing people to use black cabs by getting the government to shut down the competition.

Some suggestions:

1) Make your own app to find and book cabs, or join forces with Uber. Wandering the streets looking for a cab is just not good enough any more.

2) Make payment easier. "Cash only" is annoying, you need a card reader. Contactless card readers can take payments up to £20 just by touching the card on the machine, and that would cover a large percentage of taxi rides.

3) More cabs are needed at peak times. If you don't want the business that's upto you, but don't get on your high horse about unfair competition when someone else takes care of the customers you don't want.

If your sales pitch is "We charge a little more, but we give the best service" you actually do need to give the best service.