Tuesday 8 June 2010

Black cab drivers and Critical Mass

Traffic deliberately brought to a standstill with

delays near the Strand and roads leading to and from Waterloo Bridge.

The hour-long protest had a knock-on effect on traffic

No, not Critical Mass but black cab drivers.

"We are sorry that we have to block the streets to make our voices heard, but we feel we have no other option."

Which is something everyone who goes on Critical Mass needs to memorise, so that they can say it sweetly to the belligerent driver in the black cab who is angrily trying to force his way through all the cyclists.

In reality Critical Mass, unlike the demonstrating black cab drivers, doesn’t deliberately set out to block streets. It sets out to reclaim the streets for a safe cycle ride. What invariably happens is that black cab drivers refuse to wait and let the ride go by and aggressively try to force their way through the dense mass of cyclists.

You would think after all these years cabbies would have learned their lesson. If you wait patiently and let the cyclists go past they will soon have gone and everything will return to normal. But if you blow your horn and aggressively force your vehicle in among the cyclists, they’ll stop. And then no one will be going anywhere.

Black cab drivers are a pampered minority whose relevance to moving people around central London is very questionable. As a cycling blogger once observed

Taxis carry just 0.6% of all commuters in central London. Yet taxis are allowed to take up a huge and disproportionate amount of the road space, including being given access to the bus lanes. Why is this?

It’s a good question. The black cab lobby exercises an influence out of all proportion to its significance to personal mobility in London.

In reality black cab drivers are a lavishly pampered minority, whose influence on transport is negative not positive. They are allocated road space for parking which would be much better devoted to cycling infrastructure on the Dutch model. They are permitted to use bus lanes, whereas minicabs aren’t – a wholly irrational distinction, and one designed to benefit the well-heeled user of the London black cab. Bus lanes should be for buses, and taxi cab parking bays should be for cyclists. And no taxi should be treated preferentially; using a car for mobility in places like the West End and the City is fundamentally absurd and irrational and should be regarded as such.

Few people really need to use black cabs. Taxis will always be needed in special circumstances, for the genuinely frail or to transport large items, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to use taxis late at night. But most taxi use isn’t like that.

Why are black cabs permitted to infest streets like Oxford Street and Regent Street? They choke the West End with their presence. Yet central London is quite a small place, easily traversed by bicycle, foot, bus or tube. For one or two people to travel around central London in a large, polluting one-ton bubble of metal is an absurd indulgence. Black cabs are largely a luxury form of transport for the affluent and those on expense account lifestyles. As we know, BBC management is stuffed with freeloaders who disdain to use public transport or cycle, and a subsidised taxi-centric lifestyle impacts on programming. Walking and cycling just aren’t important to those who see London from their private glass bubble on wheels.

Black cab drivers have a curious sense of entitlement. They don’t like minicabs, they don’t like pedicabs, and they don’t like cyclists. Yet the driving standard of many black cab drivers leaves a lot to be desired. They are notorious for their aggressive attitudes to cyclists, and I have yet to meet a London cyclist who hasn’t complained of being cut up by a black cab driver. Cabbies drive into Advanced Stop Lines with impunity, knowing that the police regard them with indulgence.

I’ve never forgotten the small critical mass I went on in East London when an enraged black cab driver smashed up a cyclist’s bike. The police arrived in the form of two shaven headed thuggish looking individuals, who laughed and joked with the cabbie, and treated the victim with an aggressive hostility that matched that of his attacker. The false cosy image of the black cab driver and the prejudices of the underachieving and largely unaccountable Metropolitan Police came together all too clearly in the case of the black cab rapist.

The aggression and bellicosity of black cab drivers is startling, and can be witnessed on any Critical Mass. I had quite a sentimental, rose-coloured image of cab drivers as salt of the earth types until I went on my first CM and saw a cabbie with his hand dangling out of his window. He slowly unfurled it and furtively released a fistful of drawing pins onto the road. That’s how much some cabbies hate cyclists.

On another occasion I was standing on the pavement on Tottenham Court Road observing the usual robust exchange of views between a cabby and CM when he decided to get past by swerving onto the pavement. I declined to move, as pavements are for pedestrians and I see no reason why a black cab should be driven on all four wheels along a pavement simply to get round CM. The driver screeched to a halt, sprang out, and ran at me with his fist raised, howling obscenities. I therefore scarpered, since it wasn’t worth getting a mouthful of broken teeth simply to assert my rights as a pedestrian. But experiences like these do sort of colour your views of cabbies.

If London is ever to be civilised and turned into a city where cycling and walking are taken seriously instead of being marginalised, the numbers of taxis needs to be drastically cut, and road space currently lavished on taxi parking needs to be reclaimed for segregated cycle lanes. And when the London Cycling Campaign finally wakes up and gets the message that segregated Dutch-style infrastructure is the only thing that will transform London into a mass cycling city, you can be quite certain that the black cab lobby will be at the forefront of opposition to the restructuring of London’s streets.

(Below) A sequence of events. This black cab driver aggressively forced his way into last month's Critical Mass on Aldwych. He got as far as the law courts on the Strand before he was forced to a halt by the mass of cyclists. He then sat in his cab blowing his horn continuously for ten minutes or more, with a demented expression on his bespectacled face (second pic). It didn't do him any good as more and more cyclists arrived and everyone paused to discuss the meaning of life. Had he been patient and waited he would have got wherever he was going much quicker. (Curiously, his cab is advertising TV reception on a SatNav, which sounds an insane idea which will surely lead to yet more inattentive drivers and road carnage.)