The young man was frantic, trying to get a third date with a woman he already knew he wanted to marry. But four Bolt drivers had let it down, and when he used his Uber app, she was asking for a triple surge. In desperation, he did something he had never done before – flag down a black London cab.
“He was trying to open the front door to get in. He wanted to give me a zip code – that was the usual thing you get from those who have never been in a cab before,” said Karen Proctor, a London taxi driver. for over a decade. “I told him ‘the zip code isn’t going to help – just tell me where you want to go.’ It was a restaurant. And we got there seven minutes early, at about a third the price. He converted.
Stories like this explain why, after nearly a decade of Uber-induced gloom, things are looking up for taxi drivers. The business has come back to life since the end of the Covid measures in July, with many speaking with some astonishment of their best earnings ever.
Gett, the app that allows passengers to book black taxis and private rental cars, says it sees 40% more trips each day for traditional taxis compared to the first quarter of 2020.
“It’s been very busy – it’s like before Uber came to the capital,” Proctor said.
While foreign tourists are still largely absent, much of the demand over the summer has come from British and Irish tourists taking advantage of discounted hotel rooms in the capital.
In other parts of the country, trade is also picking up. Wendy Loveday, President of the York Private Hire Association, said: “It was like Christmas. No matter what company you work for, the work is there. And there are fewer Uber drivers because they raised the prices.
A significant part of the new business is made up of young people who have learned to rely on Uber, Bolt and other apps to get around London and other cities since their arrival in 2012.
But the cheap fares are gone – prices have risen by about a third this year, putting them on par with taxis.
“Since the end of July, it’s absolutely incredible,” said Angela Clarkson, a taxi driver who is also the deputy general secretary of the United Cabbies Group. “The levels of work have been off the scale, for those lucky enough to have a cab. “
And there is the catch. As taxi drivers talk about people running towards taxis when they stop to let a passenger out, arguing over who owns the taxi, or queues of 100 people outside from Victoria Station or Liverpool city center there are a lot of licensed drivers without a vehicle.
“People come to us every day looking for a cab,” said Lee DaCosta, founder of Cabvision which operates payment systems for taxis and also leases a fleet for drivers who do not own a vehicle. “We have drivers who literally walk the streets from garage to garage, thinking ‘do you have taxis? “”
Figures from Transport for London (TfL) show that there were 13,858 licensed taxis in London on October 24, up from historic levels of around 21,000.
The rapid drop is in part due to the Covid. During the pandemic, when drivers had no chance of making money and some were not eligible for government support, some were forced to sell their taxis and take other jobs. This led to the sight of hundreds of taxis stored in parking lots and unused fields around London.
But part of the drop predates the pandemic, and DaCosta says TfL’s policy of forcing older diesel taxis off the road has not been matched with sufficient support for electric taxis.
A grant of up to £ 7,500 for a new vehicle and up to £ 10,000 for the downgrading of an old one seems generous, but a new TX electric taxi costs around £ 60,000, DaCosta said.
“Getting old polluting vehicles off the road is obviously a good thing,” he said. “But the average age of someone in the industry is 54, so you’re looking at around £ 50,000 in funding. For someone in their fifties, it’s not worth it.
About 1,200 drivers per year leave the business, DaCosta said, but only about 300 per year join. There are only about 900 people getting to know each other – the requirement, since 1865, for drivers to learn every street within a six mile radius of Charing Cross, which takes over three years of training and practice before a license is granted.
The driver shortage isn’t just affecting taxi drivers in London. Uber says it’s returned to pre-pandemic driver levels, but more is needed to meet increased demand, with journeys up 40% in Nottingham, 30% in Sheffield and 22% in Birmingham.
“A lot of drivers have left the country to return to their home countries,” said Matteo de Renzi, UK managing director of Gett. “There has been an exodus of drivers to delivery platforms – Amazon has been very strong in this regard. “
Another reason the scale has moved away from Uber is a series of court cases that have sought to force the tech company to pay its drivers more. In February, the Supreme Court ruled that Uber could not claim that its drivers were self-employed and that they should be entitled to minimum wage and paid time off.
In the judgment, Lord Leggatt said Uber and other private rental operators were required to have a contract with their customers. That would mean they have to pay VAT – a bill of around £ 2 billion – so the company is challenging that element of the ruling in a court case on November 23.
An Uber spokesperson said: ‘As the UK opened up, demand for Uber rides has skyrocketed, with many cities now seeing demand 20-40% higher than it was. before the pandemic. The number of drivers working on the app today is similar to before the pandemic, but growing demand means we need 20,000 more drivers to bring service levels back to normal. “