Commentary / World

Uber will spell the end of London's black cabs

by Mark Gilbert


London’s black cabs might be the most famous taxi fleet in the world, but their iconic status has been no defense against the march of technology. Now that the unique selling point of London cabbies — their proficiency at navigating the capital’s byzantine street system — is replicable by any mobile phone that can run Google maps, their days are clearly numbered. While there are sentimental reasons to lament the demise of black cabs, Londoners should treat it as a sign of progress.

In an extension of the trend in major cities all around the world, the arrival of Uber has disrupted London’s status quo. License applications to drive an official London Hackney carriage are down 20 percent this year, while the number of applicants to sit “The Knowledge” exam, a prerequisite for getting a badge, have dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Bloomberg reporters Kristen Schweizer and Amy Thomson.

And while there’s been the usual accompanying kerfuffle of protests against Uber, London seems less inclined than other cities to defend the limitations on competition that officially licensed cabs have historically enjoyed. The number of minicabs in the capital — private-hire cars that have to be pre-booked and can’t be flagged down on the street — has surged 18 percent since the start of last year, but London Mayor Boris Johnson has treated that more as a potential traffic problem than a threat to black cabs’ business model.

In truth, the exalted status of the black cab was already waning before Uber came on the scene. Many drivers had already abandoned their traditional vehicles — the unique cars built in Coventry for more than half a century by the oddly named company Manganese Bronze Holdings. The Mercedes-Benz Vito, a sort of minivan that meets the strict vehicle requirements first laid down by the Public Carriage Office in 1906, accounted for 23 percent of newly licensed vehicles in the first half of 2014. I’ve yet to see anyone trying to hail a taxi turn down a Mercedes and wait for a “proper” cab.

Where progress is concerned, resistance is futile. Londoners have already seen both the red telephone box and the red Routemaster bus disappear from their streets. But, even before the ubiquity of mobile phones made them redundant, the telephone boxes had become squalid public urinals for the inebriated and target practice for vandals. As for the 2,760 Routemasters — from their unveiling in 1954 to their withdrawal in 2005, they were an ecological nightmare belching carbon into the atmosphere. Their hop-on-hop-off doorless design disenfranchised many passengers, including parents struggling with strollers, and the disabled. Their successor, introduced in February 2012, is a modern marvel of technology and eco-friendliness. (Moreover, it’s a thing of beauty in its own right, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who also sculpted the Olympic Cauldron for the 2012 Olympics.)

Black cabs, meanwhile, have long been a menace for London’s other road users. Woe betide the private driver trying to turn into a major thoroughfare from a side road against a tide of taxis, or who hesitates at a junction, or fails to hit the accelerator the minute a light turns to green from red: Taxi drivers use their horns far more freely than they do their blinkers to indicate a coming swerve left or right. There’s good reason to expect the cabs’ gradual disappearance will improve the cityscape. So while it’s always a bit sad when an icon runs out of road, I for one won’t mourn their passing.

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist.