How London’s embattled black car drivers are faring after a year of the pandemic
It’s been a tough year for many trades. But few have been as badly hit as London’s black cab drivers. With the City shuttered, and travel severely curtailed, their livelihood has all but disappeared.
Pictures in the national press last November showed a black cab “graveyard” in a field near Epping Forest, with hundreds of cabs abandoned there. Around the same time, the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) said it believed that only 20 per cent of cabbies were still driving their vehicles. So is the London black cab – already a rare sight on Chiswick High Road – about to become an endangered species?
I know of a number of black cab drivers who’ve been forced to give up the trade, at least temporarily. One’s become a forest keeper, others have taken jobs in Smithfield Meat Market, or an upmarket West End store.
I spoke to an enterprising group of tour-guide cabbies who have been working as concierge shoppers in West London, including Chiswick, for the past year, to get their views.
Ray Winstone set up the Concierge Shopping Club last March with fellow drivers from the Black Taxi Tour London company. They were seeking ways of keeping their cabs on the road after their work, ferrying American tourists around London, dried up. We featured them in The Chiswick Calendar a year ago.
Images above: Ray Winstone (left), driver Moses Gonzalez with his black cab (right)
A year later the Club is still going, with a small group of drivers still whizzing around the supermarkets and delis of West London, serving a hard core of customers in Kensington and Chiswick. Certainly its clients, many of whom can’t shop for themselves, have found it invaluable.
One of them, Chiswick resident Diana Lea, has had her shopping delivered by the cabbie-concierge team since last March. “It’s been a real lifesaver,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done without them, particularly when I was waiting for a hip replacement operation.”
It’s also helped the cab drivers themselves. Ray admits:
“The Concierge Shopping Club has probably kept the company alive for the few drivers that have tried to stay as taxi drivers. And it’s kept our admin department at BTTL going – we still have a few enquiries coming in for tours. ”
But although drivers managed to make some money doing Christmas Lights tours of London before the latest lockdown, it seems unlikely BTTL will be running large numbers of tours for foreign tourists in the near future. Most of the drivers are now actively seeking other work, with some thinking of leaving the trade altogether.
Images above: Driver Moses Gonzales delivering food and essentials in Summer 2020
Delivering dogs and paying off debts
Ray no longer works as part of the Concierge Shopping Club, but has diversified into other work.
”Lockdown’s been really good for me,” he says. I’ve probably never earned so much money. I’ve paid off all my debts.”
He’s returned to his family roots in the building trade, doing specialist roofing work as well as building walls and doing tiling. During the lockdown boom in pet-purchasing, he acted as a courier, delivering dogs from his brother’s licensed dog breeding business to their new homes around the country.
“I’ll still keep the cab,“ he says, “But it’s full of tools at the moment, and smelly blankets for dogs! “
More than 160 job applications
Moses Gonzalez has been a cheerful stalwart of the West London Concierge Shopping Club since the outset. He’s also done a bit of tour guide work over the past year, including Christmas Lights tours, and, briefly, another delivery job, which he quit because of concerns over health and safety. A year on, he’s hoping to get out of the trade for the time being.
Moses says he’s has applied for around 160- 170 jobs in the past year. But it’s been a dispiriting process. He’s only had four interviews during that whole period, with the latest one this week.
His main aim is now returning to his previous career, with the hope he can earn enough to pay his bills, mortgage and cab costs.
“I’m going back to do a refresher course to get back into the maritime industry, where I can earn some money,” he says. “I previously worked in anti-piracy security and am classed as merchant seaman. In between contracts, I can do some cab driving, and if any tours come up, I can do those as well.”
Images above: Drivers Stella and Barry with deliveries
Fellow concierge-shopper Stella Wood has also been forced to diversify. She says she hasn’t picked up a passenger on the street since the first lockdown. While she’s been helped by a Government grant for the self-employed, she’s been supplementing her income with the Concierge Club, and by delivering meals from upmarket Mayfair restaurants to hungry customers. Like many drivers, she’s taking work wherever she can find it. Her latest job is encouraging people to complete their census questionnaires.
“It’s been devastating, financially,” she says. “I feel like I’ve had a year of my life taken away”.
Stella’s keen to stay in the cab trade, particularly tour guiding, but knows she mightn’t be able to rely on the foreign tourist trade for some time. She’s also worried about how much custom the City might provide in the future. “I don’t know how many people are going to be full time workers back in the office. So it’s quite a concern, really,” she says.
Image above: Barry with a delivery
“I don’t want to do anything else”
Another concierge shopper, Barry Ivens, has been doing deliveries for wine shops and West End restaurants, as well as delivering Covid tests to testing centres. Like Stella and Moses, his last work as a tour-guide cabbie was doing Christmas Lights tours.
Nevertheless, Barry’s says he’s “quite optimistic” about the future. “I think we’ll miss out on a lot this summer”, he says, “but things will improve, the more vaccinated we get.”
And, unlike some of his cabbie colleagues, Barry doesn’t seem himself leaving cab work. “I’m a Londoner,” he says. “I love helping Londoners. I don’t want to do anything else!”
— blt63 (@BLT63sounds) December 21, 2020
Image above: a Tweet showing the black cab “graveyard” in Epping Forrest
Cabs not being replaced
Ray remains pessimistic about the future of the cab trade. Quite apart from Covid, black cab drivers are facing tough competition from the likes of Uber. And then there are the problems caused by Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. Asking a taxi driver to work without access to roads, says Ray, is “like a chef without knives, or a hairdresser without scissors. If the “tools” are taken away, it’s hard to do your job”.
He says many black cab drivers have surrendered their taxi licence plates (the white ones displayed in the back of the vehicle) as part of TfL’s recent decommissioning scheme. Drivers were offered thousands of pounds to decommission their older, polluting, diesel cabs. The idea was they’d use the money to buy new electric taxis. But that’s not always happened.
“It started before lockdown,” says Ray, “but everybody’s jumped on it since lockdown, as an opportunity to get rid of their taxis, and nobody’s replaced them. So we’ve gone from about 20,000 cabs down to about 13,800. So when it all starts up again, there’s not going to be any cabs to rent.”
He’s not even sure how many, if any, people are currently doing The Knowledge, the gruelling, lengthy course you have to pass to qualify as a London black cab driver.
“I’ve been a cab driver 35 years,” muses Ray, “and I’ve always said to people, ‘do The Knowledge, it’s another string to your bow’. But now I say, ‘don’t do four years’ studying. Do a bricklayer’s course or a plasterer’s course if you want another string’!”
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