The Problems with Driving a Hackney Cab in 2017

Driving cabs in London has always been a risky job – but you could say that it’s got even riskier in the last few years.

Cab drivers have been working on the streets of London for nearly three hundred years and although we now have the security benefits of CCTV and in-car cameras…

…it’s questionable whether today’s drivers are really any safer than our centuries-old forefathers.

Part of the territory that comes with being a cab driver in London in 2017 is having to deal with the asinine comments of customers, usually regarding how much they’re paying for their fare and how it would really be so much easier if we all just drove for companies like Uber instead.

I’m not going to spend the next few hundred words or so laying into the spoilt millennial generation that has overseen and supported the return to a form of near-slavery that I’ve no doubt they would strongly object to – that is, if they weren’t so intent on getting across London as quickly as possible to make their very important party.

I’m not going to do that because I believe that Uber drivers will be suffering from many of the same problems that we’ll also be struggling with.

I’ve been told before that us drivers have never had it so good. Pretty much every corner of the city is covered with CCTV so (theoretically) if we were going to be held up there would be a dozen or so cameras watching the perpetrator leave the scene, leaving a digital breadcrumb trail for the police to follow. Theoretically this makes sense. Unfortunately, in practice, the increased level of surveillance only serves to hinder cab drivers, rather than help them.

You see, surveillance works both ways. By all means it can aid the police to track down wrong-doers, but it also means that we’re constantly being watched for the slightest indiscretion and, thanks to our license plates, we’re always one wrong move away from endorsements on our all important license. Do you know how many points you get for failing to comply with a no entry sign? It’s 3 points and they can be the difference between feeding your family and making a trip to the food bank.

Of course, even if you do manage to evade the beady digital eye of the law, you’ll still be lucky not to run into an accident. London’s roads are busier than they’ve ever been. The population of the city swells every year with cars, motorbikes, cyclists and pedestrians all potential hazards. Whilst more people necessarily means more fares, in reality this just translates to less space, time and an increased risk of accidents.

Lastly, with more people comes more crime. Whilst London has intermittently been a fairly lawless place, statistics have shown that knife-enabled crime is now at an all time high. Many cab drivers, for their sins, still use predominantly cash, making the risk of highway robbery as dangerous (if not more) than it ever was in the pre-modern day.

So why do we continue to drive cabs?

Because the money is good, the people are brilliant and this is our city.

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First Week On The Job

The stereotypical Black Cab driver in London has a certain profile.

When tourists come to London, they love to catch our Hackney Cabs.

The bulbous, black vehicles are as iconic as the Red Telephone Box, it only follows that a ride in one should be part of the London experience.

Of course, like so many dreams harboured by tourists, the real-life incarnation of their coveted idea may well lack the glamour that they had previously imagined. England is a country that receives millions of international tourists every year (31.5 million eager visitors flocked the city in 2015, a number that shows a sharp increase on previous years, almost 20% if numbers are to believed) and with each of these comes the inevitable taxi cab ride.

When a tourist sets foot in their first black cab they are usually forced to comment on a couple of things.

Out of breath, perhaps a little damp from a light drizzle that has been falling for the last hours or so, they breathlessly bundle into the back of the cab and are shocked by how clean it is. When visiting our capital city for the first time, most tourists are forced to overcome the amount of rubbish and graffiti that litters the streets in a daily basis. Its not something that is shown in Love Actually and the grubby state of decay, that is on general display across the city, is surprisingly not explored in any of the advertising brochures.

After a couple of days, tourists have usually got used to the general mess that lines the streets.

So when they step inside a cab, especially one like mine, they are usually surprised at how clean it is.

I began my cab driving career in the height of Summer last year, whilst London was receiving it’s biggest influx of tourists since records began.

I’d spent the last 10 years as a coach driver; although London had always been my hometown, I’d not had the chance to spend too much time there recently. It had been a decade since I’d walked the damp, drizzly streets of London – in the meantime I’d been cruising the dry, sandy roads of Spain. Driving tourists around the hills and towns of Catalonia, I’d gained good experience in driving but I was growing tired of the expats living out there. Thanks to a removal company, I was able to chuck it all in, when I hit 60 and return to the East End. Although I missed the Spanish sun almost immediately, London has always been waiting for me as my hometown.

Last year, the popular taxi app, ‘Uber’, was just beginning to make it’s presence known in the industry.

I knew that I could easily find a car and work for them, but something didn’t sit right with me doing this.

The cabbies of my youth were grizzled, weighty men with pot bellies and Cockney accents. Their ‘Knowledge’, a combination of locally sourced information and a written test, put them head and shoulders above any outsider and a swift, yet eventful journey was always guaranteed. When it came time for me to sit behind the wheel of a cab, it had to be a Hackney Cab and I needed to have the Knowledge. After spending a few afternoons down my local, getting tips from the retired and semi-retired cabbies there, I was ready for the test and all set for my first fare.

The first surprise that visiting customers often get, when the step inside my black cab, is how clean it is – the second is how quickly they get to their destination.

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Mad Dash to London City Airport

Driving a Hackney Cab in London can be a surprisingly pedestrian job at times.

London may well have the reputation of being a city that doesn’t stop.

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Filled with power walking businessmen with their heads down, furiously pacing to their next appointments.

Rammed with shuffling tourists, confusedly snapping photos of Costas. Packed with strangely dressed young people, all desperately attempting to stand out of the crowd of their contemporaries, all hopelessly dressed in the same uniform. But, when you’ve driven cabs in this town for as long as I have, all the people with their hustle and bustle become simply part of the background noise.

Unlike the hoards of Uber drivers that have flooded the streets, with their GPS systems and ‘cashless’ systems, I stick to the old ways. The street names and corners that I have seen almost every day of my life are burned on to my retinas. With each week and month, shops can be closed and buildings can be razed, but the streets remain the same.

My memory is a living creature. Dense, tunnelling tentacles that wind through the recesses of my mind; they run through my arms, out of my fingers and onto the wheel – taking my passenger and I onward to our destination. At times it can be an almost automatic experience, transcendent even.

“Bond Street to St. Pauls? No problem son, get you there in a jiffy.”

“Paddington to the Zoo? Weather not good enough to walk? Just an egg yoke mate, there before you know it.”

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Of course, every now and again, you get a curve ball thrown at you. The quiet ease with which you drive is interrupted by an angry fare. You’re perhaps accosted by a particularly drunk crowd of kids. Or you’re simply given an almost impossible challenge.

I usually try and avoid driving through rush hour. The fares may well be in abundance, but the roads can often make progress a little stilted. This day was an odd one though, I’d already driven through the night, ferrying students back and forth from a remote house party. I’d made a packet already, but now the hunger for more cash had gripped me. My hands had been firmly gripped to the wheel for hours and they weren’t ready to release me from the road – not yet.

A flash of red caught my eye, as I idled past Euston Station. The door flew open and a blast of a rich smelling perfume filled the cab.

“London City Airport – I need to be there in half an hour, can you do it?”

At 8:30am, the streets are clogged with vehicles. Eager tourists are already spilling onto the roads and students are heading to class – it’s rare that I’m given such a challenge, but feeling as hot as I am, I simply nod and let my memory fly into action.

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The fare and I both know that there’s car parking at London City Airport (found here). She could have woken up maybe an hour earlier and driven herself there. Instead of rushing and trying her luck for an experienced cab driver, she could have eased her expensive saloon into a pre-booked car parking space and sauntered into the airport with ease. A little preparation goes a long way. But, this lady was from money. She got where she needed to be at breakneck speed or not at all. Her immaculate beauty came at a price – punctuality.

Luckily for her, she flagged an experienced cab driver who was reaching the pinnacle of 10 hour hot streak.

Luckily for me, she had a couple of spare twenties in her bag to show her appreciation.

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