What Do Digital Consumers Mean for Black Cab Drivers?

London's black cab drivers added a second string to their collective bow this week. Not only are they the only group of men and women capable of picking England's World Cup football team, they are also the only profession that can deliver on a promise to bring the centre of London to a standstill (other than Boris's bendy buses and tourists wobbling around on TfL bikes, of course).

The problem now for cab drivers is that we are in the digital age. Before I go on, however, I should mention that two of my uncles share a black cab -- and if you're wondering, yes, they have had both John Terry and Ray Reardon "in the back." So I write this with a strong affection for the people who have spent years studying the knowledge and then saving up to buy a hugely expensive, traditional cab who are quite right to become a little annoyed when the lines between a chancer with a Ford Escort and an A to Z are blurred.

Mini cabs -- or private hire cars if you prefer -- have lived alongside black cabs for many years, mainly due to the huge distinctions that protect the upper echelon. As any Londoner knows, mini cabs can't be hailed on the street and they have to work out a fee based on mileage. Here's the crux of the issue. A five-mile trip in a mini cab costs five miles worth of charge, no matter what the traffic. A five-mile trip in a black cab will cost you however long it took to complete the five miles. It's a right for black cab drivers that they get paid for their time as well as their miles -- and, of course, they have the knowledge and experience to get passengers out of traffic and moving that a private hire driver may not possess.

A case in point was a recent mini cab driver who didn't know where he was when he picked my family up, nor did he know where either the O2 arena or Emirates cable car were even though both could clearly be seen in the distance. I mean, how can you be in Greenwich and not know where either major landmark is?

Black cabs obviously offer the best service with an assurance that you are being driven by someone who truly knows London, or at least the part of it they cover if they have just a suburban badge.

The trouble, as I say, is that we're in a digital age now. People still go to a street corner to buy a paper and have a chat with the vendor, but they are increasingly likely to simply tap an app to find out what's going on in the world. Similarly, people still go out on the street in the hope of hailing a cab, even if the rain, but they're now starting to use apps instead.

It's when those apps go beyond ordering to acting as a meter, however, that the real trouble begins. Black cab drivers are not as anti-mini cab as you may imagine. Many are very pleased to leave them with local shopping trips for the elderly during the day and then taking home drunk revellers at night. There is enough work out there for both sides to make a living.

So, to cut a long story short -- what's the solution for black cab drivers? In a word -- Hailo, or at least something very similar.

It's an app that has courted controversy recently by applying for a private hire licence. Until recently it had only offered black cabs, but it says it needs to offer private hire cars too to give users a choice because, at the moment, those searching for a black cab and finding none available nearby were simply opening a second app to hail a mini cab instead. Offering private opens up more corporate works too, the app claims.

This may cause alarm among black cab drivers but my advice is this. King Canute tried to hold back the tide and look where it got him.

Either collectively launch an app that only has black cab drivers available or embrace Hailo and use it to showcase your differences. Play up the safety aspect of a registered driver and the time savings from someone who has passed "the knowledge." Let people book a six-seater rather than a five-seater, highlight taxi's disabled friendly services. Another good one would be to allow tourists to prioritise booking cab drivers with extensive London knowledge (many have taken a course to pass on info on the landmarks they pass). 

The Uber meter issue is something TfL are taking legal advice on and so that's best left to the lawyers. Sounds like Uber's on a sticky wicket to me, but let the lawyers decide.

Anyone with a little digital knowledge would be able to tell black cab drivers, however, that if they do not wholeheartedly embrace the digital age their industry niche will suffer. They quite literally have "the knowledge" to collectively differentiate themselves in a way that media titles are desperately trying to.

So you can be anti-Uber (or at least it's metering facilities), but the best way to prosper right now is to embrace digital fully and offer digital consumers something they cannot get anywhere else.

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