Dr Mike Galvin for Mobility Services Limited’s continues his articles based on his Doctoral Dissertation; Culture, Change and The Management of London’s Taxi Drivers. In his earlier two articles he discussed the Knowledge and Culture, in this article he examines the impact of radio and what he discovered.
These radio taxi companies were institutions within the industry. They were equally powerful, empowering and ground-breaking. Their aim was to give taxi drivers access to an additional income and they provided value as a means with which to fight the intrusion of minicabs into the industry. Some drivers welcomed radio circuits whilst others loathed them. It seems that each driver had a view as to whether they had been a valuable addition to the industry or had negatively impacted it.
All the London taxi drivers spoken to had opted to join a radio taxi circuit for a variety of reasons, the most popular amongst these was the ability to earn more money or an equal amount of money just quicker. Many also joined to aid with what was viewed as the fight against minicabs and to regain business.
Often drivers were encouraged to join a radio taxi circuit by others. The suggestion from fellow taxi drivers to join a radio taxi company was often based on heightened earning potential.
Essentially a driver on radio can net a fare from the street or through the radio, thereby increasing the chances of picking up a fare. Fares from the radio circuit were also upheld as holding a higher value than street fares and would usually involve travelling longer distances. There were further perks in that payments were guaranteed by the radio circuit, each fare would include an automatic gratuity, which was often the case, waiting time was involved and a supplement was paid for the time the driver was kept waiting. There was also a going home feature which could reduce a driver’s working day. Due to the use of radio trips vehicles consumed less diesel and drivers benefited from more regular breaks rather than wasting fuel driving around looking for fares.
Radio circuits appeared to incite a tribal like manner in taxi drivers like that of football supporters. Whilst numerous taxi drivers and definitely most football supporters have little say in how the circuit/football team is managed they nonetheless showed ownership, pride and would in some cases defend their circuit to the death if required. Drivers I had spoken with have voiced the words ‘I love my circuit’. This old fashioned view manifested itself in almost a ranking with Computer Cab being seen as easy come, easy go, and Dial a Cab and Radio Taxis were seen to be much better as there was a two year waiting list to join versus Computer Cab’s usual six week free trial. Dial-a-Ride and Radio Taxis were the earliest, they assigned drivers destinations and therefore a choice of work whereas Computer Cab was a ‘no refusal’ circuit when voice was used and a ‘view you do’ circuit when they moved over to digital. Computer Cab when it started was called London Wide Radio Taxis and was known frequently as the Mickey Mouse circuit or the Lollipop circuit arising from the shape of the mics that were installed in the taxis.
During the boom years of the late eighties when the American banks and consultancies poured into London, law firms boomed and ‘radio work’ skyrocketed, the cooperatives found their structures restricted their growth (they were required to have an AGM to agree to increase the size of the fleet) whilst Computer Cab was allowed to grow exponentially and did so. Very soon the smallest, Computer Cab, became larger than the other two put together.
Channels were scarce in the 80’s and 90’s, motorbike couriers thrived before the common practise of emails and PDFs when every document had to be transported physically. Minicabs escalated and the big three taxi circuits needed an increasing number of channels. Savvy technologists split channels, moved from VHF to UHF and brought in Vehicle Identification (VI) so instead of a dispatcher needing to hear a call sign they saw the first successful job on a small screen. Paper slips were replaced by VDUs (Visual Data Units) an early and old style of PCs and eventually conveyor belts carrying paper dockets handwritten by telephonists to dispatchers were obsolete. Computerisation was at this point in its initial stages – Computer Cab’s earliest computer required for Woodfield Road to be closed and a massive lorry and crane needed to lift a large cabinet of technology into the building after a wall had been removed to accommodate it. Several years later the replacement was able to be carried in under an engineer’s arm and provided around 100 times the power!
Radio taxi operations had limited funds. Drivers were paid before the money was collected from customers which resulted in huge cash flow gaps. Meanwhile growth for demand was high, staff were increasing and technology was highly expensive. Typically circuits were on the verge of insolvency. Creative schemes were developed to get drivers to harbour some of the pain – and so the Roller Bond was born. A Roller Bond required for 10% of a driver’s account work to be rolled up until it reached. This meant that on average each driver had money on account that could be used to ease cash flow.
This was a significant change at the time and its journey was not a simple one. This was in part due to management’s belief that their role was to manage, and a strong cultural belief amongst taxi drivers was that ‘we are all equal’ – ‘we are all taxi drivers’. These statements set the foundations for many very real battles where tempers frayed, and power was wrestled between management and driver. The bulk of taxi drivers regarded themselves to be small business owners and expected to be treated as such.