January 22, 2004

Attacked in the street? Don't call a cop. Call a cab.

Andy Wood | General Points (not just transport) | Road Miscellany

Theodore Dalrymple writes in the Spectator that taxi drivers in his home city have eagerly embraced satellite navigation technology:

When a customer calls for a taxi, his location is entered into a computer, and the satellite system automatically allocates the nearest free taxi to the customer. This not only maximises efficiency, saving the customer time and the taxi-driver fuel, but it also improves human relations among the taxi-drivers themselves...

Under the old dispensation, when drivers were allocated jobs via a radio, there were grounds for permanent mistrust and even paranoia among the drivers. They suspected, for example, that the staff who manned the radios had their favourites, to whom they gave the juicy jobs (of course, this did not have to be true for paranoia to exist). Moreover, a job having been allocated to a particular driver over a radio to which all drivers listened, another driver might race to the customer ahead of the particular driver. The latter might then find that he had wasted time, effort and fuel, and would accordingly be very angry, without knowing against whom to direct his anger. He therefore viewed all his fellow drivers with mistrust.

By its indisputably fair and objective allocation of jobs, the new system has completely transformed the relations of drivers with each other. Into the bargain, they spend £20 to £30 per day less on fuel to raise exactly the same revenue.


Not only can the taxi drivers ferry us from A to B so much more efficiently with the new technology, but they have also now formed their own private protection agency:
Their system (for which they paid £1,500 each) also improves their safety by protecting them from the more aggressive members of the British public. No longer will the drivers have to carry chilli powder to squirt in the eyes of passengers who turn ugly — an uncertain method at best of subduing them. Instead, they press a button fitted to their cabs that will signal their whereabouts to all the other cabs in the vicinity who will come, en masse, to their rescue. They are thus freed of their reliance on the police, who are always busy with other things when crimes occur. Nevertheless, the computer will also, when necessary, plan routes according to the whereabouts of police stations. And, as if this were not enough, the computer will record the abusive language and threats of the passengers.

If this proves successful and the technology becomes cheap enough and small enough so that people can routinely carry it around, there is no reason why it couldn't be extended to the general public. For a monthly subscription you would be issued with an electronic distress beacon and, in the event of your being mugged, you would switch it on and a swarm of taxi drivers will soon arrive on the scene to help you fend off your attacker. A taxi driver could be paid a bonus proportional to the number distress calls he answers. Some of them may even specialise in protection and give up their taxi service. Thus, we may see the gradual encroachment of the market into a service which most people assume can only be provided by the state.

Dalrymple also explains why the taxi drivers have been so quick to embrace a new technology to the advantage of all, while the public sector routinely makes a hash of things:

The first and most obvious answer is that it is in their interest to do so, while it is never in the interest of the British bureaucrat to solve any problem whatsoever. Indeed, he regards any solution as a threat to his job and therefore his mortgage repayments. His interest is in the multiplication of problems, not their solution. The Circumlocution Office has metastasised through British life, since Dickens first coined its mission statement, How not to do it.

But there is more to the difference than this. The taxi-drivers have not had the inestimable disadvantage of what in Britain now passes for tertiary education, and have therefore retained both a willingness and an ability to think for themselves. Their thoughts are not filtered through a mesh of barbarous but gimcrack theory of the type peddled in those institutions of higher work-avoidance known as universities. It is through them that so many of our heartless, inefficient and cowardly public servants have passed.

Unfortunately, he also knows how to ruin a good idea:

The first lesson, of course, is that the country should be run exclusively by retired taxi-drivers.

I cannot think of a surer way to corrupt our taxi-drivers. The point may be in jest, but I think it shows a slightly rose-tinted view of the virtues of taxi-drivers. Mr Dalrymple perhaps believes that their lack of a tertiary education will enable them to retain their virtues when they make the transition from entrepreneur to civil servant. But why should this follow? After all, don't civil servants lose some of their vices when they make the transition to entrepreneur? Isn't that one of the arguments for privatisation?

I suspect that Dalrymple's first reason is the more significant, that he is noticing these virtues because he is observing the taxi-drivers operating in a market, where they profit by providing things that other people want. Were he to observe them with their hands on the levers of power, he may see them to be as selfish as anyone else. For instance, if the Campaign to Legalise Jitneys ever gets off the ground, we should expect taxi-drivers to lobby vigourously against it. They already have form on this one.

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Comments

My housemate works in IT for a London borough. A colleague of his works days for the council, and evenings as a taxi driver. Maybe your last two paragraphs explain what my housemate couldn't figure out: why anyone who makes a good living in a white collar job would want to work more than they needed to as a taxi driver.

(Also, I'm probably the only person who read the Dalrymple piece and was reminded of the whole Coronation Street storyline where Steve and Dev bickered for several months about whether or not to get sat nav for all their firm's cabs. I'm not proud of this.)

Posted by Jackie D on January 23, 2004

When I lived in London I sometimes used a local minicab company that was operated by Pakistanis – one of them took me on his first ever visit to the West End! Those guys were extremely entrepreneurial and helpful but probably had no connection with any government bureaucrats or tax collectors.

It was a bit of a culture shock when I made my second phone call to the local high-tech taxi company after moving to Edinburgh:

“Good morning, Mr Farrer. Are you going to the airport again today?” This was before I had spoken a word.

Posted by David Farrer on January 23, 2004

My local crewed-by-Pakistanis-who've-been-in-the-country-six-weeks cab firm actually has a caller ID-based CRM system like your high-tech Edinburgh one (as does the local pizza delivery firm, which is staffed on a similar basis).

I guess this implies the prices of these systems have fallen to trivial levels (so why can't my bank and utilities implement them? Oh, because they don't actually care about attracting customers to pay the rent like small businesses do...)

Posted by john b on January 23, 2004

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