The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uber is not the only reason London’s iconic black cabs are under threat

Parked taxis block the mall leading to Buchingham Palace during a protest by cab drivers against Uber, a mobile phone app for private taxi service, in London on Wednesday.  (Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)
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Thousands of London's taxi drivers took to the streets Wednesday as part of a Europeanwide protest against the legality of start-up taxi service Uber. The drivers deliberately drove slowly around London's West End, bringing the British capital to a standstill and disrupting the journeys of a huge number of people. It's been estimated that it could cost the city $209 million.

It's a remarkable display of power from London's cabbies, designed to show their displeasure at Transport for London's decision to approve Uber in the city. But in reality, today's events actually reveal the weakness of one of the world's most remarkable taxi cultures in the world.

When I say "remarkable," I mean it. Getting into a London "black cab" is an experience. The cabs, historically black but now painted in other colors, as well, are specially designed vehicles. Usually four-door saloons with a large rear, the cars are designed to accommodate five people comfortably (all wearing bowler hats, according to tradition). Known as "Hackney Carriages," these vehicles are unusual to drive, too, with a maximum turning circle of only 25 feet. This makes it easy for them to do u-turns on London's slim, winding streets (apparently this distinction comes from the requirements of getting to London's Savoy Hotel). In their own way, the cars are as distinctive as the city's traditional red telephone boxes or double-decker buses.

There are strict requirements for being allowed to drive a black cab. Most notably, driver candidates must pass a test known as "The Knowledge." It's notorious, and with good reason: A driver who has passed "The Knowledge" should know virtually every street and landmark in London, and know the quickest way to get between them. Get into a black cab at Waterloo station and ask to go to the Britannia Pub in Hackney, and the driver is expected to get you there quickly, without looking at a map or using a phone. At most, Transport for London gives out passes to only one-third of the those who study for "The Knowledge" each year. It takes most applicants years of driving around the city (usually on a scooter) to pass the test, and a significant amount of applicants drop out. The test is considered the hardest of its type in the world, and it even spawned a strand of neuroscience research.

In some form or another, London cabbies have been around since 1662, when Hackney carriages (then horse-drawn) were first regulated. Modern taxi drivers can buy their own car and license, effectively becoming self-employed. For many, it was a way out of the working class, providing a respectable income without standard education qualifications, and the taxi driver stereotype came to be represented by those from the poorer East End of London (though London cabbies remain disproportionately white and male).

But the modern era has presented challenges for London's black cabs. In 1961, licensed "minicabs" were introduced to the streets of London. While the cars weren't as nice, and the driver might get lost, they were significantly cheaper to use than true black cabs. These cars can't be hailed from the street (they must be booked), and most firms are small, but some companies have grown enough in size to become serious rivals to the black cabs' power (Addison Lee is the prime example). London black cabs are still very expensive – you might pay as much as 80 pounds ($134) to get from Heathrow Airport to central London. And in the age of satellite navigation, "The Knowledge" looks less and less important, though black cab drivers are quick to dismiss GPS ("It's all bull----," Bob Oddy, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, told the Financial Times in 2010).

As beloved as the cabs are, many in London feel like the black cabs have kept too much power. In a persuasive screed against black cabs published in the Spectator, author Harry Mount listed some of the things he hated about using a black cab:

With their exclusive rights protected by the Public Carriage Office, and their rivals held back, black cabs behave like any cartel — they squeeze their advantages for all their worth. On countless occasions, I’ve gone nuts at the little tricks drivers use to extend the journey time: gradually slowing down in approach to a green light, willing it to turn red; slowing down before a zebra crossing in the hope that a pedestrian will come along; moving off at the lights at a glacial pace; piling on infinitesimal fractions of seconds to the journey by taking a particularly wide arc into a corner; scrupulously staying out of yellow boxes painted over crossroads, apparently for Highway Code reasons, but really to catch another red light.

Uber represents a special threat for London's black cabs. Not only is it cheaper (and quicker, according to one test by the Independent), it is changing the very concept of what a taxi is. The start-up allows customers to use their phone to hail a cab or  an "UberX," an even cheaper alternative that uses ordinary cars. Only licensed black cabs in London are allowed to use a meter system, but Transport for London has approved Uber for London, accepting the San Francisco-based firm's argument that because its drivers use their phones to meter fares they are exempt from current rules (though this decision will eventually go to the United Kingdom's high court).

"I will be there today with the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) because I believe it is important for our traditional industry, made up of thousands of hard-working sole traders, to stand up in the face of aggressive tactics from multimillion dollar multinationals," taxi driver Ian Beetlestone wrote in the Guardian.

London's cabbies have fought these battles before and won. Unlike their American counterparts, they are organized as the London Taxi Drivers Association, and they can use tactics learned from other RMT members to bring London to a standstill when they are threatened. In 2008, just the threat of a black cab blockade was enough to convince Heathrow Airport to cancel its plans to allow minicab firms to operate from its terminals. Pan-European support may bolster their cause, too: Other countries, such as Brussels, have said that Uber drivers need to be licensed and have blocked them from the road; London may eventually follow suit.

However, with this strike, London's black cabbies may be risking their greatest asset: the support of Londoners. And now, Uber is claiming that it sign-ups have increased 850 percent due to the strikes.