London’s Iconic Black Taxis Fight Back Against Uber

London black cabs at a taxi rank at Covent Garden.

Black cabs and red phone boxes. Icons of London. But as the phone box was rendered obsolete by technology, do services like Uber spell the same fate for the iconic cab? Not if London’s 22,000 cabbies have anything to do with it.

While most new taxi apps, such as Hailo and GetTaxi, have sought to improve the experience of hailing a cab — registered black cabs are the only taxis allowed by law to be hailed from the street; other taxis must be booked in advance — a new service is trying to extend the reach of the black cab.

The black cab is a London icon, but under threat from rival services

Picture: Rank by Garry Knight
Released under CC4.0

Maaxi, launched earlier this year, allows riders to share a journey. The app connects people going in the same direction for shared rides, in the same way that Uber allows people to share rides with its Uber pool service.

“There are 100,000 rides also a day by black cabs,” says CEO Gabriel Campos. “These are people who need a black cab at exactly the moment when the cab passes. The number of people doing that is very limited, and declining, because younger people are using apps so not even walking to the streets, or because companies have cut back on using taxis.”

Maaxi offers riders the luxury of a black cab for about the same amount as a tube ticket: a £15 taxi ride, shared among four people all going to roughly the same place would cost each around £3.50, says Campos.

Use Technology To Extract More Value

Others are skeptical. Piers Mummery is CEO of BrightMove Media, which fits real-time digital rooftop screens to black cabs. “The sort of people who get taxis tend to be more affluent. Most people can expense it so they are not as cost-conscious and willing to share a journey.”

Mummery says cabbies instead need to use technology to extract more value from their vehicles. In return for a quarterly rental of £500, cabbies agree to have one of his display panels fitted to the vehicle. Ads can either be on a loop, or controlled by four triggers: location, time, temperature and customer data.

On The Rank

In 1654 Oliver Cromwell set up the Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages by Act of Parliament. This makes the licensed taxi trade the oldest regulated public transport system in the world.

The first motorized London cab, introduced in 1897, was the electrically-powered Bersey, nicknamed the “Hummingbird” for being so quiet. They were unreliable and were withdrawn in 1900. The first petrol-powered cab in London was a French-built Prunel, introduced in 1903.

The name “taxi” is disputed. One claim is that the taximeter was invented by the German aristocrat, Baron von Thurn und Taxis. The other is that it was invented by the German Wilhelm Bruhn in 1891, and that the word comes from the German word “taxe” meaning charge or levy.

The iconic London cab shape was set in 1958 with the introduction of the Austin FX4, which remained in continuous production for 39 years. In 2013 there were 22,200 licensed London cabs.

It takes about three years for a cabbie to learn “the Knowledge,” a test that requires the committing to memory every street, road, avenue, place, etc. within a six-mile radius of the King Charles I statue at Charing Cross, on the south side Trafalgar Square. (Chosen because it is the point from which all UK road mileages are measured to and from London.).

It has never been the law for a London cabbie to carry a bale of hay in his cab.

“The data is where clients can provide their own real-time data, we can deliver real-time advertising to match that,” he says. “One that was a great success was Zoopla. We identified the number of properties that were for sale or rent by postcode area. As the taxi moves from postcode to postcode the ads would change automatically based on the number of properties in that area.”

Martin Franks, who has been driving a cab since 1987, is attempting to tackle the problem himself, with a twist on the current in-taxi advertising. His company, Taxicab Screens, which he hopes will launch late summer, has a tailor-made screen that as well as showing customers the usual ads, will, he says, keep them watching with a service called ‘Secret London.’ “When you get past somewhere that is famous and it has some history or trivia, facts will pop up on the screen,” he says.

Hailo Had A Brilliant Business

The first attempt to drag the 300-year-old taxi industry into modern times was Hailo, an app that allows users to book London cabs from a smartphone. The company went from hero to zero as far as cabbies were concerned when it opened up to rival minicabs.

“Hailo. It is so upsetting,” sighs Franks. “They had a brilliant business. They shot themselves in the foot. ”

Hailo CMO Gary Bramall defended the decision to open up the platform. “Hailo Exec was introduced to help service our business accounts. It represents a very small percentage of our overall share of jobs, yet is critical in bringing even more jobs to taxis by winning bigger corporate accounts.”

Bramall is confident that the cabs will not go the way of the phone box. They have one key advantage over Uber — they can slice through London’s notorious traffic much faster.

“Black cabs go in bus lanes, meaning they can get passengers to their destination much quicker.”

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