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London's iconic black cabs fear for the future in an age of Uber

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London's iconic black cabs fear for the future in an age of Uber

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Lauren Hurley
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LONDON — When Paul Mayclim first got behind the wheel of one of London's iconic black cabs, he earned enough to pay his mortgage, for his wife to stay at home with the kids, and for one vacation a year.

After 26 years, that's no longer the case. Instead of encouraging his sons to follow in his footsteps and become one of London's elite taxi drivers, he's pushed them to go to college.

"All the years you put in, all the studying, then [new technology] comes along and your experience is worth nothing," Mayclim said.

This week's court case involving ride hailing app Uber was closely watched by many cabbies. Overwhelmingly white working-class men, black cab drivers see themselves as the gold standard in the taxi trade, but have seen real incomes stagnate amid the demographic and technological changes that have swept the city.

On Tuesday, aBritish court gave Uber a 15-month probationary license, which will allow it to continue operating in London, after being stripped of its previous licence pending appeal in September. The company convinced a judge that it had made significant changes after the local regulator declared it was not a "fit and proper" business.

Paul Mayclim started driving a black cab in 1991.
Paul Mayclim started driving a black cab in 1991.Rachel Elbaum

Transport authorities had cited failings in Uber's approach to reporting serious criminal offences and background checks on drivers. During the court hearing, Uber admitted the way it operated in London needed to change, and accepted that the initial decision to revoke its licence in September was correct.

Unsurprisingly, cabbies are some of Uber's sharpest critics. They are quick to point out Uber's failings, citing reports of sexual assault and other safety-related incidents as a top reason to take black cabs instead.

Still, Uber has passionate supporters, and around 3.6 million people regularly use the service. One Change.org petition to "save Uber in London" racked up more than 850,000 signatures.

Since Uber launched in 2012, it quickly ate into black cabs' business and become a way of life for many Londoners.

"It's the waiting for a cab at night, not knowing if they will or will not stop, and many will not take anything but cash," said frequent Uber passenger Sunny Singh, who explained that she felt black cabs often failed to pick up people of color. "It becomes multiple layers of difficulty and Uber cuts past it."

Taxi troubles

There's also the appeal for drivers, who don't have to take lengthy courses or pass strenuous tests. Chip Radoslavov drove for Uber from 2016 until April this year to make ends meet as he developed his web business.

"No other job has the freedom of Uber," said Radoslavov, who is originally from Bulgaria and runs the blog Uber Driver London. "If things don't work out [with my business] I always have the Uber safe net."

London has seen the number of private hire drivers in the city increase by 12 percent in the last three years to more than 113,000 today. 45,000 of them are Uber drivers. Private hire drivers do not need to take a specialized exam and can get their license by passing an English test, as well as background and medical checks.

“This isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

In contrast, becoming a driver of one of London's nearly 21,000 black cabs is akin to getting a college degree.

Studying for The Knowledge — an exam required for all registered black cab drivers — involves memorizing 25,000 streets and 100,000 landmarks. Studying for the test involves nearly full-time study at a cost of thousands of pounds.

However, Sat-nav has made these studies somewhat obsolete. What's more, black cabs' higher fares have led to passengers turning in their millions to Uber.

Applications for The Knowledge plunged 43 percent in the last few years, from 1,116 in 2015 to 628 this past year, according to transport authority Transport for London.

With falling passenger numbers and rising costs, black cab drivers say that they are working longer hours to make the same amount of money they did years ago.

A taxi next to an Uber outside Paddington Station in London.
A taxi next to an Uber outside Paddington Station in London.Lauren Hurley

The rivalry between black cabs and private hire drivers also highlights the differences in their backgrounds. While black cab drivers are largely white, according to official numbers, private hire vehicles are often staffed by immigrants and people of color.

Courtney Connell, who was born in London and raised in Barbados, told NBC News that although the majority of cabbies are white men, the industry is in no way closed to others.

"The Knowledge is open to everybody. The only thing that stops people is not wanting to put the time in to study," he said.

Connell, who took The Knowledge 25 years ago, says he was Transport for London's first black Knowledge examiner. Until this past January, he also ran a school teaching The Knowledge to prospective drivers and eagerly showed off photos of his multi-racial classes.

Despite the industry's troubles, getting the "green badge" that black cab drivers wear around their neck after passing The Knowledge is a real point of pride. After all, around 70 percent of prospective drivers drop out of their studies before finishing.

A Knowledge exam route sheet rests on a moped in north London. They are used by prospective cabbies to learn the city streets.
A Knowledge exam route sheet rests on a moped in north London. They are used by prospective cabbies to learn the city streets.Carl Court

"This isn't just a job, it's a lifestyle," said Gert Kretov, who works part-time as a cabbie and also co-runs the Knowledge Point School, training future drivers.

Cafes that cater to cabbies are social clubs in themselves, with drivers meeting up dailyfor a bite to eat and a cup of tea. Indeed, camaraderie and the ability to make your own schedule are often cited as the main perks of the job.

Despite the troubles facing London's black cab drivers,Kretov believes that more private hire drivers will make an effort to get the green badge if Uber faces tougher regulation.

"All we want is fair competition," Mayclim said, adding that Uber drivers aren't restricted to a particular vehicle and the company can charge what it likes, undercutting black cabs. "What we've got at the moment is not fair."