30 May 2015

Bikes v Strikes

I was riding my bike home from central London earlier this week when I noticed there were a lot of black cabs snarling things up in rather a big way. ‘Ahh,’ I thought to myself. ‘That’ll be the strike over the iPhone app thing’. I pulled over to talk to a couple of friendly-looking cabbies, who filled me in as we talked about competition from Uber in the early Summer sun.

Surely The Knowledge gives them an edge over some silly piece of software, I asked the cabbies. They were adamant that they were indeed cheaper and more reliable. But apparently that wasn’t the point, as it turned out that their beef is less with Uber – which you can download at https://www.uber.com/cities/london – and more with Transport for London for allowing new entrants into the metered cab market.

Google Maps reporting traffic flows at the height of London's taxi strike
Like last year, the taxi drivers’ brief period of holding London hostage was the mother-of-all PR cock-ups. Unlike black cabs Uber drivers don’t go on strike – everyone knows that now – and making central London even tetchier by honking horns and clogging up the roads is a novel way to endear yourself to the population.

Yet as I weaved my way home on my bicycle I realised that here we had the political spectrum reduced to a single event: a monopoly administered by the Public Carriage Office snarling up London’s streets for everyone apart from those of us on two wheels, who are bound only by the Highway Code and a sense of survival (and coincidentally my closest shave in years was with a psychotic black cab a few months ago). That the police had promised arrests if the street blockades continued for any duration seemed a wonderful example of how cack-handed the state can be in resolving problems it has created.

Perhaps it is time for the Public Carriage Office’s operation to be reformed. Perhaps it is too late – Uber has joined the ranks of Google and Hoover as companies that now double up as verbs.

I haven’t taken a black cab in years, and the expense of a return trip into town on the tube still makes me wince. But here I was pedalling through Pimlico and enjoying the glorious weather with my progress unfettered by cost or regulation, while others suffered because of people getting grumpy about losing a monopoly licensed by the state.

And I pondered why cycling is associated with the lefty beard and sandals brigade. London’s Mayor and our PM both ride bikes, yet cycling is still regarded as distinctly… Huppertesque, some might say. Indeed the entire Liberal Democrat parliamentary party could ride to work on four tandems.

But cycling is a mode of transport that allows total freedom of movement, requires little government intervention and has ubiquitous vehicle ownership – all solid right wing values. The advent of the modern ‘safety cycle’ in the 1890s played a key part in the emancipation of the working class. And travel by Boris Bike spikes over Christmas and during tube strikes, occasions when state-controlled public transport fails Londoners. Tuesday’s action by black cab drivers rammed home just how inherently Tory the humble bicycle really is.

First published by Platform 10 on May 30th, 2015