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Uber in London: Where to next?

This is a repost of an article I wrote over on Medium.

Last year, London Taxi drivers blocked the streets in protest against Uber, the on-demand taxi service. Uber has revolutionised the speed and ease at which people can be transported across the world’s cities, but has been met with stiff opposition from well established players — especially London’s black cab drivers who are seeing their industry transformed, some would say destroyed, before their eyes.

The way we get from A to B has evolved markedly over the last 300 years but every step hasn't been short of its fair share of conflict. Each new innovation has disrupted an existing industry, a way of life and, often, an institution.

Uber vs. London’s cabbies is a new chapter in this tale, but one which, as you’ll see, is not dissimilar from other conflicts that have occurred previously on the streets and waterways of London.

Watermen vs. Bridges

Like many cities, for many years London’s River Thames was its artery and life blood. Since the Saxon and Roman settlements sprung up along the banks it has provided London with food, a means of disposing of its waste (not during the same time periods, I might add) and of course, as a method of transport.

Although London Bridge is believed to have existed in one form or another since the Roman army built a pontoon spanning the river to capture the heartlands of the Catuvellauni, it was the only one downstream from Kingston until the mid 18th century. By Tudor times the bridge had over 200 buildings and so much traffic that it sometimes took over an hour to cross the 270m span.

An engraving of the bridge in 1616. Over 200 buildings were built on top.

An engraving of the bridge in 1616. Over 200 buildings were built on top.

For those wanting to avoid its bustling single lane thoroughfare, there was an alternative. A thriving industry of ferrymen had sprung up along the banks of the Thames catering to those wealthy enough to be able to afford the short crossing by wherry or skiff to the opposite bank. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated there were around 4,000 ferryman serving the area in the mid 17th century, a large number if you consider the population of London was only around 200,000 at the time.

These watermen and the City of London Corporation, which owned London Bridge and received tolls from traffic, were largely responsible for London remaining without another bridge until one was constructed at Westminsterin 1750, hundreds of years after the construction of the first. In the interim they used fierce lobbying tactics to derail progress on this bridge and applied the same tactics for every construction thereafter.

Though these tactics to delay progress on London’s bridge building activities may seem unnecessary today, and were most likely intensely annoying for the average London resident, the waterman did what they had to do to keep their profession alive. Ultimately, and thankfully for the average London commuter, common sense prevailed and we all know how the story ended up. Today there are 19 road or pedestrian bridges spanning the Thames between Kingston and London Bridge, not to mention several tunnels and the Dartford Bridge further downstream.

Some of London’s bridges today as well as the piers that still line the river and used by tour boats and Thames Clipper services.

Some of London’s bridges today as well as the piers that still line the river and used by tour boats and Thames Clipper services.

Quite possibly thanks to their work in slowing the progress of change the Thames waterman were able to adapt, and the tradition still very much lives on. Today there are still 600 working the waters of the capital, transporting over 3 million people a year, as well as freight.

Particular mention goes to the Woolwich vehicle and passenger ferry, which is believed to have operated in the area since the later 14th century, and which still transports 1 million vehicles a year across the short stretch.

The Queen has done her bit to keep traditions alive as well and still retains 24 Royal Watermen under the command of the Royal Bargemaster who perform ceremonial duties both on the River, and on land as boxmen on royal carriages.

London’s last remaining ferry service serving over 2 million passengers a year.

London’s last remaining ferry service serving over 2 million passengers a year.

The longevity of such traditions is reassuring proof that new innovations can work alongside old as long as change is embraced (and a bit of lobbying helps too).

Horse Haulage vs. the Motor Transport

Another industry that put up quite a fight when confronted with new and potentially threatening technology was that of the horse hauliers.

In Victorian times, the streets of London were quite simply drowning in horse shit. According to a writer at the time, 50,000 horses were working on London’s streets pulling horse trams, hackney carriages and barges along canals. These horses which had a life expectancy on the job of only three years apparently required around a quarter of a million acres of foodstuffs per year, produced 100,000 pints of urine and deposited over 1000 tonnes of dung on the roads every day. The manure left lying on the streets was a haven for flies which spread typhoid, and other such nasty diseases, and when horses succumbed to their grueling work, they were left at the side of the road for their bodies to putrefy so they could be cut up easier. Not a pleasant sight, or smell.

The streets of Victorian London, teeming with horses.

The streets of Victorian London, teeming with horses.

"The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894" as it became known, was a pivotal moment in transportation and The Times Newspaper declared to the world that in 50 years time the streets of London would be buried in 9 feet of manure. Even the supposedly great urban planners of the world couldn't come up with a solution to the problem, which also blighted cities such as New York which had 100,000 horses.

Thankfully, many bright minds were and had been working on a solution in the form of early steam and motor cars, but their efforts had been stifled in the UK by restrictive legislation pushed forward by big players in the horse haulage industry.

The Locomotive Act of 1861 limited motor vehicles to 12 tonnes and and limited speeds to less than 12 mph. Incensed, horse hauliers immediately began a campaign to quash this threat to their industry and managed to succeed in getting the “Red Flag Act” passed into law. This extremely restrictive bill meant motor vehicles were limited to a measly 2mph in built-up areas and 4mph elsewhere. They were also forced to operate with a minimum crew of 3 and have a man waving a red flag leading the way at walking pace. It was a crushing defeat for the burgeoning motor transport industry, and effectively ruled it no faster, and certainly more expensive, than walking or horse power.

It wasn’t until 1895 that this seemingly ridiculous act was finally reversed and speed restrictions were increased. This is largely thanks to intense advocacy from the likes of Harry Lawson of Daimler.

The “Red Flag Act” required all motor vehicles to be lead by a man waving a red flag at no more than 2mph in built up areas.

The “Red Flag Act” required all motor vehicles to be lead by a man waving a red flag at no more than 2mph in built up areas.

Unfortunately, a large amount of damage to the industry was done and innovation and progress was severely stifled for the next 30 years.

Although the transition to locomotion was by no means quick, the haulage industry changed with the times - though horses could still be seen on London’s streets until after the Second World War.

Today, with the exception of the odd police horse, our streets are equine free. Better off for the streets of London, our noses and, of course, the horses!

The Future

As we can see from these examples, this current conflict between Uber and black cab drivers is far from the first that has been played out on the streets and will certainly not be the last. Both of the stories are testament that successful lobbying can slow the tides of change, but more often than not the easiest, and often the cheapest, ways prosper .

That being said, the London cab driver is, in my exceptionally biased opinion as a Londoner, the elite of the world’s taxi drivers. The Knowledge, the grueling test that all Cabbies must pass, requires knowing all 25,000 streets and countless landmarks within 6 miles of Charing Cross, requiring a huge amount of work, time and skill. It’s hard to not have respect for their dedication in the age of the sat nav. In its long history, London has often been able to balance new ways and technologies whilst ensuring existing traditions are kept alive and can co-exist, hopefully the same can be said about the black cab driver.

Although Uber’s journey up to this point has been far from smooth, and seemingly never far from controversy, there is a huge market that they look set to conquer. As Naval Ravikant mentions on Twitter, we could be on the way to having 1 dominant taxi dispatcher for the whole world.

The story I feel, certainly won’t end there though. Uber have expressed the desire to transform other industries such as food delivery and recent investments point towards an interest in self-driving cars. The thought of a fleet of autonomous taxis available on demand certainly seems like the future, but this leads me to think that maybe the next time this post could be relevant is in the inevitable conflict between Uber and, soon to be ex, Uber drivers.

Sources: Watermen > (1 2 3 4 5 6 7Horse Haulage > (1 2 3 4)