That privilege has been reserved since 1865 to generations of cabbies, who have to memorise around 25,000 of London’s streets in a test known as the Knowledge to gain their licence, in a process that takes an average of three to four years. Preparing for the test, which has a 50 per cent pass rate, by constantly traversing the 10 kilometre radius around Charing Cross has a physical effect — it’s proven to grow cab drivers’ hippocampus.
The resulting advantage isn’t just an encyclopedic knowledge of London: it provided guaranteed income. Cabbies are able to pick up people wherever they like, use taxi ranks across the city, and are permitted to use most bus lanes. They don’t set their own fares, but are exempt from congestion charges, a levy that costs £15 per day for private hire vehicles.
As Uber and its rivals offer discounts to customers and add thousands of vehicles to the streets of London, Zone 1 has become the final bastion for the taxi trade. “[The Uber app] will tell their drivers to gravitate to those pickup points, knowing full well that if people are walking towards them, they’re going to hit the button and the closest car is going to get the job,” says Alan McGrady, of the London Cab Drivers Club, one of London’s main taxi trade organisations. “But if they get away with it here who’s to say that they’re not going to expand it throughout the West End or onto Oxford Street or onto Regent’s Street?”
The crux of this issue with Uber’s pick-up spots goes deeper than this to 1847, which is when horse-drawn hackney carriages were defined in the Town Police Clauses Act as “every wheeled carriage, whatever may be its form or construction, used in standing or plying for hire in any street”. Those without a licence caught plying for hire, an ambiguous term which could mean parking in a designated area or leaning against a stationary carriage, were fined 40 shillings (the equivalent of around £212 in today’s money) — four times more than the fine for letting a chimney accidentally light on fire detailed in the same Act, and the same amount as someone behaving in a drunk or indecent way at a police station.
There was some update to the licensing law in the 1970s and in the 1990s, but since then there has been no national legislative change, despite the changes in technology, travel behaviour and transport demands. None of these laws were prepared for the arrival of Uber. Today, if a private hire vehicle is caught plying for hire or idling on a taxi rank in the same way as the law described 174 years ago, they could face a £1,000 fine and the loss of their licence.
Yet Uber’s simple act of replacing geolocation pickups with pick-up spots, where people know they are likely to be able to order a car quickly, may be in breach of that same set of rules — demonstrating how limited the ride-hailing market still is.
There are 40 licenced taxi ranks in central London where drivers can stop for a maximum of 45 minutes or 60 minutes, and a further 45 ranks in the City of London. In Soho, the taxi ranks are small, but they offer a recognisable place for drivers to pick people up.
The rank in Old Compton Street has been moved to Dean Street because of al-fresco dining, but people have learned where the cabs are now, McGrady says. He is convinced that Uber is trying to do the same thing, training people to “walk out to their cars waiting”, and that TfL is not doing enough to stop them. “Why would you want to kill off the best taxi trade in the world? Who knows,” he says. “But that’s the way we feel in the moment, that nothing is going our way.”