‘Field of broken dreams’: London’s growing taxi graveyardsPage Visited: 6
Confronted with deserted streets during the pandemic, drivers are turning in their rented black cabs by the hundreds.
Black cabs in a field in southeastern England. (Image by Andrew Testa © 2020 The New York Times)
Drive through a leaf-strewn forest and past a charming street market in this town about 20 miles northeast of London, and a jarring sight appears: black London taxis, parked bumper-to-bumper by the hundreds in a muddy field, surrounded by beehives and a barn for raising squab pigeons.
It’s a camera-ready monument to the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic. The cabs were returned by their drivers to a rental company because of the collapse in business after Britain went into lockdown in March. As the number of idled taxis piled up, the company ran out of room in its garage and cut a deal with a local farmer to store about 200 of them alongside his bees and pigeons.
“I call it the field of broken dreams,” said Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, which represents about half of the British capital’s more than 21,500 licensed cabbies. “It’s awful, and it’s getting worse.”
On Wednesday, England emerged from its second lockdown, but severe restrictions remain in effect, and it’s anyone’s guess when central London’s deserted streets will once again fill with office workers, theatergoers and tourists.
As of now, barely a fifth of London’s taxis are currently operating, McNamara said, and the drivers still on the road are averaging just a quarter of their pre-pandemic fares. The city estimates that 3,500 taxis have left the streets since June. They are stashed in parking lots, warehouses, garages and fields all around the capital.
To McNamara, who earned his scars battling for taxi drivers against the competition from Uber and other ride-hailing services, the pandemic is an even greater existential threat. Unless the government offers more financial aid, he said, London could lose one of its most recognizable symbols — one that ranks, in the tourist lexicon, with red double-decker buses, phone boxes and police officers in their dome-like helmets.
“The buses aren’t red anymore, the telephone boxes are gone, and policemen now sit in BMWs with submachine guns,” McNamara said, unfurling a colorful line he has doubtless used before. “We’re the only London icon left, and I genuinely fear that we’re not going to be around in three years.”
To some who watched the war between black taxis and Uber, the cabbies were not always the most sympathetic figures. For one thing, their services were, and still are, more expensive. Predominantly white, male and English, the cabbies present a superannuated vision of Britain, next to the ethnically diverse immigrants and other strivers who get behind the wheel and slap an Uber decal on their window.
With Uber’s customer service and image problems, however, the battle lines are no longer so clear. Also, McNamara said, the taxis have smartened up their service with phone-pay software, Uber-like apps that allow people to call a cab, and environmentally clean electric vehicles. Had the pandemic not struck, he said, 85% to 90% of the fleet would have been electric by the end of 2024.
There is no dispute that Britain’s lockdowns have devastated the trade. Ryan Spedding, who has driven a cab for nearly nine years, vividly recalls when Prime Minister Boris Johnson went on television in March to declare, “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction: You must stay at home.”
The next day, Spedding, 44, drove his Mercedes taxi into London to discover a ghost town of darkened pubs and shops, deserted office towers and empty railway stations. Normally teeming spaces like Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square needed only blowing tumbleweed to complete the portrait of urban desolation.
“You could drive around for two or three hours and not see a person on the street,” he said. “You go from your day ticking along nicely to something out of ‘28 Days Later,’” he said, referring to the Danny Boyle movie about a deadly virus that transforms London into an eerie post-apocalyptic landscape.
Spedding pays 280 pounds, about $375, a week to rent his taxi. At that rate, he saw no option but to return the car to his rental company, GB Taxi Services. As a self-employed person, Spedding was eligible for state aid that has compensated him for about two-thirds of his average income.
He and his wife, whose dog-walking business was hurt by canceled vacations and clients who now work at home and can walk their own pets, have also gotten a break on their mortgage payments. But Spedding said he had dipped into his savings and run up credit card debt to stay afloat.
Mostly, he said, he is “bored as hell.” Like all licensed drivers, he passed a fearsomely rigorous test of London’s streets, known as the Knowledge, a process that took him 3 1/2 years. Having invested so much of his life in becoming a driver, Spedding said, “I can’t even think about doing something else.”
This week, Spedding said he planned to take his taxi out for a post-lockdown spin to see if customers would return.
“There is a big part of me that thinks maybe not,” he said.
To make up for lost business, some drivers, like Dale Forwood, have taken to offering tours of the Christmas lights on Regent Street. There are few tourists to sign up, but locals, cooped up after weeks of lockdown, seem eager to get out. Forwood, 54, also drives a delivery van for a supermarket chain.
As she navigated the lightly trafficked streets one recent night, she spoke wistfully about how London was normally jammed with shoppers from all over the world at Christmas. With the return of those visitors still dependent on a vaccine-secured future, local residents remain the lifeline for taxi drivers.
“As long as people use us,” she said, “they won’t lose us.”
For drivers like Jim Ward, who own their cars, the drought is more bearable. He said he is picking up about four fares a day, earning an average of 60 pounds, about $80, compared with about 150 pounds during good times. But he bought his cab, the familiar boxy model made by the London Taxi Co. — since renamed the London Electric Vehicle Co. — secondhand years ago, and his costs are modest.
Since January 2018, all newly licensed cabs in London must be electric. A new electric model goes for about 65,000 pounds, about $87,000; many drivers finance the purchase, which saddles them with heavy monthly payments.
“The young guys, who are doing this with financing, can’t afford it,” Ward said of the repayments during the pandemic.
Ward, who is 67 and has been driving for 46 years, notes that the taxi profession has plied the streets of London since Oliver Cromwell licensed hackney carriage drivers in the 17th century to cut down on robberies (an example of the charming historical nuggets that seem to flow fluently from the mouths of black-cab drivers).
As they idle at somnolent train stations or in front of empty hotels, cabbies swap horror stories (one waited 22 1/2 hours for a fare at Heathrow Airport). And they play a doleful game of what-might-have-been. Howard Taylor, who is 60 and has been driving for 33 years, considered selling his 3-year-old cab before the pandemic hit. Now, he figures, he’d lose at least a third of its value.
“You’d have to be a fool to buy it,” he said, “because right now, driving a cab is not a viable proposition.”
By Mark Landler
c.2020 The New York Times Company