There are 2 types of taxis in London. (3 I guess if you count Uber, but every review I’ve read of Uber in London has been bad – it’s overpriced and slow.) One is the iconic Black Cab, which works like a taxi in pretty much any big city you’ve been to. The other is the minicab. That differs in that you don’t hail it on the street; it’s pre-booked by you calling the company, telling them where to pickup and drop off, and them coming to get you. Somewhat less efficient than the Black Cab since you have to wait (unless you arrange for a pickup ahead of time) and the cars tend to be a bit dirtier, but it’s far less expensive, sometimes 50% of the price of a Black Cab. So we almost always get a minicab. (Now that I think about it, I have no idea why they’re called “mini” cabs, as they’re not necessarily smaller.) Mobile apps like Kabbee make them even easier to book as they do a live search among different companies to get the cheapest quote. I highly recommend that app if you ever visit London.
The thing is, the two different systems lead to two different incentives for the drivers. I’ve been in taxis in various places where I’m certain the driver did not take the most direct route, to milk the clock. If they’re not sure they can get another tier, they’re incentivized to do so. But with minicabs, the fare is fixed no matter how long it takes. So drivers are incentivized to finish the route as fast as they can. And normally, that’s good – getting somewhere quickly is usually the same thing the rider wants. But sometimes it’s not.
As per usual, we got a ride home from the airport the other day on a minicab. Our flight was late, and the driver was forced to wait an hour for us to get out. As we’re driving, he mentions how long he waited, and how he was hoping to do a few more jobs afterwards but now he’s so tired he’s not sure. He then tells us how this is his very first job since having a heart attack a few months ago. He then proceeds to drive like a maniac, regularly hitting 100 MPH, to finish the trip ASAP. Cussing out slower drivers the entire way. He chased an ambulance at one point. He was driving so fast that his 70 MPH in a 50 MPH zone felt relatively safe. Meanwhile, during the journey he starts coughing. Not a lot, but in light of his comments that he was driving for the first time after a heart attack, enough to make me very, very frightened. I spent the entire ride white-knuckled in fear, literally sweating through my shirt. I recited Psalm 23 repeatedly. I mentally prepared myself for the event of him having another attack, thinking through how I’d have to grip the wheel and pull his leg off the gas and calculating how much space it would take to decelerate from our breakneck speed. One of the most frightening journeys I have ever taken. But that’s what happens sometimes when there’s more incentive to drive fast than safe.
I will say I don’t understand the economics of minicabs, especially to Gatwick airport. With traffic and waiting for delayed flights, a roundtrip journey for a driver can be up to 5 hours. For that he makes £56, minus the overhead of the cab company and petrol, which must be considerable. I don’t see how anyone can make a living that way.