Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Uber is a 'cancer,' say defiant London cab drivers

Eager for a fight, London's black-cab drivers vow to battle Uber to preserve a livelihood they say is under threat from the rule-breaking ride-hailing service.

A few blocks behind the Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe theater is a place few tourists, or even Londoners, ever see. Keep going past the Tesco Express and through an unmarked driveway to reach a car park jammed with black cabs.

It's one of the last spots in all of London where drivers of the city's famous taxis can have a rest, get their cabs washed and buy parts at an adjacent store. If they're hungry, there's a cash-only cafe in what looks like a double-wide mobile home. Open 24 hours, the Great Suffolk Street Taxi Cafe is a place for comfort food and conversation.

London cabbies are famous for being opinionated. These days, Uber is a popular topic.

After Transport for London (TfL), the British capital's transport regulator, refused on Sept. 22 to renew Uber's license to operate, we visited the cafe to see what cabbies thought of the news. We were expecting elation, but the reality was a mix of defiance, quiet resignation and "bring it on." To many of the drivers, Uber, which arrived in London in 2012, is destroying a proud and historic tradition that plays a vital and iconic role in the city's life. Competition is fine, they say, but fair competition is not what this is.

Sean Paul Day, a taxi driver for 18 years, says Uber is destroying a proud and historic local culture. He's also a co-founder of a taxi-hailing app called TaxiApp.

Sean Paul Day, a taxi driver for 18 years, says Uber is destroying a proud and historic local culture. He's also a co-founder of a taxi-hailing app called TaxiApp.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

A cuppa and a chinwag

The car park is a busy place. Drivers socialize in the patchy afternoon sun and a steady stream of cabs (officially called Hackney carriages) arrive and park at the disused gas pumps of an old service station.  

There's not a lot to capture your attention inside the spartan cafe, with its hard plastic chairs and bare tables. A TV plays Sky Sports. The menu is equally spartan: instant coffee for £1, a full English breakfast (served all day) for £5, and a selection of classic British desserts like sticky toffee pudding, jam roly-poly and spotted dick. We're only minutes from some of London's poshest restaurants, but this feels miles away. (The Taxi Cafe is open to the public.) 

The taxi rest area is located in a courtyard car park surrounded by buildings.

The taxi rest area is located in a courtyard car park surrounded by buildings.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Around several of the tables, groups of cabbies enjoy their lunch with few moments of silence. It takes a while to break into the conversation at the next table, but just a brief mention of Uber wins us an invitation to sit and share a cuppa and a chinwag.  

Sean Paul Day, a driver of 18 years, has the table's center seat. Tall and animated, he speaks rapidly and gets straight to the point. "The KGB would have given their right arm to have Uber's power," he says while eating a large plate of fish and chips (at £9, one of the pricier dishes on the menu). Uber "is a global, heavily financed profiteer going against a local taxi trade. As big as the taxi service is in London, it's still local."

Uber has appealed TfL's decision and will be allowed to operate normally during that process. On Oct. 3, the company's new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who had already apologized to Londoners for "messing up," visited London to hold talks with the city's transit officials. In a tweet that same day, he said he was "determined to make things right in this great city!" TfL also released a statement on Tuesday characterizing the talks as "constructive" and said that more discussion would continue in the coming weeks.

London's taxi drivers send Uber a message

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Uber, the 'cancer of trade'

The global versus local debate is hardly unique to Uber, but it exemplifies a common theme we heard over and again. None of these taxi drivers is angry at Uber's drivers; rather, their beef is with Uber as a company. George Vyse, who's been driving for 47 years and buying and selling used black cabs for 40 years, is outraged at how little Uber pays its drivers, describing it as "slave labor."

Black-cab drivers are self-employed, meaning they can keep all the money they earn from fares. Uber, on the other hand, takes up to 25 percent of every fare. The company doesn't openly speak about average earnings, but last year union GMB won a case against Uber because one driver was found to be earning less than minimum wage after the company had taken its cut. With a £2.60 flat-rate base fare for any cab ride, black-cab drivers need to pick up only three passengers an hour to earn the national minimum wage of £7.50.

The Great Suffolk Taxi cafe is completely unassuming, both inside and out.

The Great Suffolk Taxi cafe is completely unassuming, both inside and out.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Of all the people we spoke with, Vyse was the most vehemently opposed to Uber as a company, calling it "the cancer of trade" ("trade" is the term cabbies use for driving a taxi). In the window of his office -- a small trailer situated beside the cafe -- he proudly displays a cartoon depicting Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbes" fame urinating on the company's name. His objections? There's a whole list, top of which is the way he says Uber plays fast and loose with the safety of passengers by not conducting proper background checks on its drivers. (Uber has yet to respond to a request for comment.)

Along with enjoying a reputation for good chats and an encyclopedic knowledge of London, Vyse says black-cab drivers are highly trusted, with an unblemished safety record.

According to statistics from London's Metropolitan Police, 19 licensed private-hire drivers were investigated for sexual offenses in 2014, with five convictions. The following year, 28 private-hire drivers were investigated, with nine convictions. Since 2000, two black-cab drivers have been convicted of sexual offenses: John Warboys in 2009 and David Perry in 2015.

"If you take the majority of drivers out there, including me, we've done the job proper," says Vyse. "We abide by the rules and regulations." Leaning back in his chair, the slim-built Londoner, who looks much younger than his 78 years, peers at us pointedly through his clear-rimmed glasses. "You couldn't be any more straighter than George Vyse." 

George Vyse says taxi drivers have followed the rules. Uber, he says, should follow them as well.

George Vyse says taxi drivers have followed the rules. Uber, he says, should follow them as well.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The emergence of a couple of bad apples rocked the industry and caused upset among drivers, he added. But that's nothing compared with Uber's attitude to safety, which has resulted in widespread anger. He's seen more protests in the last two to three years by cabbies than in the 50 years preceding Uber's arrival in the city.

As for Uber, 32 of its drivers were accused of rape or sexual assault in the previous year alone, according to freedom of information data obtained by The Sun newspaper. Earlier this year, existing fears about Uber were exacerbated when the Metropolitan Police Force accused the company of failing to report sex attacks. Now TfL has piled on, accusing Uber of being careless with Londoners' safety by failing to institute proper background vetting.

A sign in Vyse's office makes his opinions on Uber perfectly clear.

A sign in Vyse's office makes his opinions on Uber perfectly clear.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Back inside the cafe, Day echoes Vyse's sentiments, albeit in a calmer tone. "Uber give the impression that they are reputable, safe, legitimate, when in fact they are in contravention of the regulations," he says. "There's a lot of anger there. It hasn't been directed at the drivers, I must say. ... They've just taken an opportunity."

Mick Smith, a driver for 28 years, was sitting at an adjacent table in the cafe, but he kept leaning in during our conversation to interject. After a few minutes, he moved over to join us. His major complaint? Uber's cheaper fares are possible only because it's a large company with deep pockets.

"The only reason Uber is cheap is because they have billions in investment," he says. "Uber is running at a loss because of it." (Uber reported a loss of $645 million in the second quarter of this year.)

Uber and black cabs have different fare structures, but a six-mile ride across London lasting 30 minutes can be as much as £10 cheaper on Uber than with a taxi. Of course, prices vary widely depending on traffic conditions and time of day.

Some of Uber's nearly 850,000 customers who've signed a petition backing the company said it's the only form of transport they can afford. "Uber offers more value for money than any other," said petitioner Daniel Clover. "People have a right to choose."

"I have often experienced rude and expensive London cabbies but have always been treated courteously by the Uber drivers," said another, Yvonne White. "I know up front what it's going to cost, I don't need cash and I have a choice."

TfL: More foe than friend

If cabbie opinions against Uber are varied, their ire against TfL is universal. The refusal to renew Uber's license is welcome, drivers say, but TfL should have been properly regulating the company in the first place. TfL declined to comment on whether it could have done more to regulate Uber in the past.

Once again, no one is more critical of TfL than Vyse, who's been an activist and a spokesperson for his colleagues in the trade for many years. "I suppose they'd call me a troublemaker," he says. "But I'm the kind of person who stands up for what I believe is right."

"It's careless that they have been allowed to operate," he adds. "The people, the body to blame is TfL ... not Uber, because TfL was licensing them." As he sees it, TfL gave in to political pressure by making room for Uber, but quickly got out of its depth as the company flouted regulation after regulation. "Uber is a monster that's out of control."

Paul Luchford, who's been driving for 15 years, agrees. "If Uber won't conform to the regulations," he says, "[TfL] is just as much to blame." The way he sees it, it's not just black-cab drivers who are suffering from the influx of Uber. "Uber aren't just undercutting us, they're undercutting the whole private-hire industry."

Uber drivers need to pass criminal background, English language and medical checks to secure a "private hire" license from TfL, but that license comes with fewer requirements than a license to drive a black cab. For example, though Uber drivers are tested on how to read a map, they don't have to learn The Knowledge, a 152-year-old system for memorizing every street and landmark in a six-mile area of central London.

Mick Smith defends The Knowledge and says Uber drivers aren't competing on an a level playing field.

Mick Smith defends The Knowledge and says Uber drivers aren't competing on an a level playing field.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Knowledge requires drivers to be able to navigate between any two points in London without referring to a map or GPS. Learning The Knowledge can take two to four years, and drivers must pass a stringent exam administered by TfL. It's a grueling, demanding process, unmatched anywhere in the world.

"I'm upset because because what I had to go through now comes on your phone," Smith says. "It's not about competition, it's about going through the same process."

Despite his grievance, Smith is a staunch defender of The Knowledge. He says it always wins over GPS, because it forces him to rely on instinct and the map in his brain. He believes it's also safer because his eyes are on the road rather than on a screen.

"You always need a reference point beyond GPS," he says. "I'm not a slave to a screen."

Smith also believes that TfL handles passenger complaints unfairly. If a passenger complains about a black-cab driver, TfL typically follows up with the driver personally. But complaints against an Uber driver can be referred to the company instead.

Embracing, not rejecting technology

Though Uber's fans in London have cited the ride-hailing service's embrace of technology as a reason they use it, the taxi industry is far from being a group of Luddites.

The use of apps like Gett and MyTaxi to find passengers and process credit card payments is now widespread, and it started before Uber arrived. In 2011, a small group of taxi drivers co-founded Hailo, an app that lets people find taxis on their phone (MyTaxi absorbed it last year). Even if they use an app, TfL requires drivers to rent or buy credit machines for their taxis.

"[Apps] are a sign of the times, I accept that," Mark Thomson, a driver of 23 years, tells us while eating a plate of mushrooms and beans on toast. "I'll get work without them, so it's my choice to use them or not."

Some drivers even acknowledge that Uber's arrival in London has forced them to adapt for the better.

George Shipton, who's been driving for over 14 years, is determined not to let Uber ruin his livelihood -- in fact, he credits the company with forcing him to up his game. He adds to his income by allowing a high-end fashion brand to advertise on his cab. He's also a registered London tour guide. "I diversified," Shipton says. "I made a personal decision. My decision is to come out fine. It's all I've ever known. It's how I've always been."

If your cab is dirty, you can have it washed while you're getting some lunch.

If your cab is dirty, you can have it washed while you're getting some lunch.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Last year, Day and seven other drivers even started their own ride-hailing app, called TaxiApp. Unlike Gett and MyTaxi, which are largely funded by investors outside of London, TaxiApp is owned and operated solely by local drivers.

That means passenger fares go directly into the driver's pocket, and the app keeps the money circulating in the local economy, says Day, who serves as TaxiApp's communications manager. Also, because Taxiapp's fares are based on the meter rather than on a fixed price, passengers will experience a transparent payment system without surcharges. 

"We don't see the other [ride-hailing] apps as being too different from Uber," Day says. "They are corporations with bottom lines that go to shareholders. TaxiApp is owned, run by and financed by drivers."

Day says more than 1,500 drivers now use the app. They must pay £5 per week to be a member, but TaxiApp doesn't take a commission from passenger fares.

Visions for change

Ask Vyse if he'd put money on Uber failing to win its appeal to get its license renewed. "I believe they will, and I hope I'm right, sincerely," he says. "I'll be very very upset if I'm wrong. They can't put it right. They're now grovelling: 'Mr Mayor, what do you want us to do? We'll bend over backwards.' A bit too late now, isn't it?"

For his part, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has TfL's back and defended the regulatory body's decision on multiple occasions, including in an op-ed for the Guardian last month. He also criticized Uber for being "aggressive" in its response to TfL's decision, reminding the public that the company has an army of PR people and lawyers at its disposal.

The fight isn't over, though. Uber has many supporters on its side, including politicians and the Londoners who've signed that petition for the company to be allowed to stay.

Some petitioners have acknowledged that Uber can improve to build passenger trust.

"[Uber] provides a very efficient and cheap service which is a great alternative to other modes of transport," wrote David Maclure. "The drivers do however need to be checked out more thoroughly for driving competency and the security of passengers."

Sasha Simmons argues that Uber needs to provide a safer environment for women passengers.

Sasha Simmons argues that Uber needs to provide a safer environment for women passengers.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But even if Uber is forced out of the city, US rival Lyft is reportedly eyeing a UK expansion, which means another ride-hailing app ready to step into its shoes. How would Vyse feel about that?

He's pragmatic. "We can't take everybody on. I mean, there's so many people out there now," he says, in reference to passengers. "But if a company comes in, it's got to be controlled like we're controlled."

Many of those we asked about Lyft seemed similarly open to the company's potential presence in London -- at least in theory -- while some called for a cap on the number of drivers.

"Nature abhors a vacuum and I think someone else would come in," says Shipton. "What needs changing, and it needs changing for us as well, is there needs to be a ceiling of numbers." London's streets are already "creaky" with the number of cars they must bear, he added. From 2015 to 2017, 108,700 new taxis and private-hire vehicles, including Uber drivers, received licenses in London, a 27 percent increase over the previous two-year period.

The taxi drivers we spoke with agree that better and more consistent enforcement of regulations is the best way to reconcile the rifts across the industry.

They also recognize that not every driver in London can be a black-cab driver -- the difficulty of passing The Knowledge sees to that. Taxi drivers also must buy or rent a black cab, and they pay more fees than Uber drivers (£1,023 vs £438) to initially acquire their license.  London's cabbies proudly boast they're the best in the world and they want to remain so -- not instead of technology, but in spite of it.

"We've got to be careful because -- never forget the reason why we've got London cabs in the first place," says Shipton, referring to why The Knowledge was created. "It's because cab drivers were getting lost at the Great Exhibition in 1851. They couldn't find Hyde Park," he says, pausing to laugh. "Much like Uber cabs can't find it now."