Wednesday, 11 June 2014

London cabs and why they are like Big Publishing

Today London's black cab drivers headed for Trafalgar Square in protest at the threat to their livelihood from Uber. You can summon an Uber cab from your smartphone, and it will collect you and take you to your destination for less than a black cab would cost. 

Though the official objection is to the unlicensed use of meter apps, that's not really the issue. Cabbies who have spent years acquiring The Knowledge and hold the whole network of London streets in their heads resent this newcomer using apps and satnavs muscling in on their territory and undercutting their prices.

It seems to me that the issue has a lot in common with Big Publishing's problems with Amazon. Like the Big Five, London's cabbies have enjoyed a virtual monopoly, and their prices have risen to the point where I don't take cabs any more - I can't afford the fares. Now Uber offers a digital alternative - cheaper and more convenient - no more waiting to hail a cab, just tap into your phone. 

Cabbies want Uber to go away so things can go on the way they always have. But the new technology won't go away. Unless the cabbies can persuade the government to block Uber, they will have to adapt in order to survive, even if that means being more competitive on price, accepting internet bookings and abandoning The Knowledge.

The internet has radically changed the way people do business. If you don't want to change, then you will find an outsider changing things for you. Publishing's outsider was Jeff Bezos.


  1. Great post Lexi and a really good comparison. Like the song says-- Times they are a- changing.

  2. I hadn't heard of Uber and it sounds like a great idea.

    You just can't uninvent technology; if you could, we'd still be stuck with spinning wheels and hand-powered weaving looms and we'd be getting our clothes clean by banging them on wooden washboards. Although all of those were also high tech in their day!

    People will always scream that it's unfair when it's their own skills that are becoming obsolete, rather than learning a new skill set that is useful with the new technology.

    And that's just what's happening with publishing now.

  3. Thanks, Jan!

    FH, I hadn't heard of Uber either until black cab drivers inadvertently did this massive advertising campaign for them. Apparently Uber has had huge numbers of new customers sign up this week. Ironic.

  4. I know it's been a month since this was posted, but I found this article on Uber in Orlando, Florida, which I thought was interesting.

    Turns out, the taxi drivers are in favor of Uber - it's the taxi cab owners who are against it. The taxi cab drivers, who parallel authors, lease cars from the cab companies and often, after paying the day's lease rate, don't actually make any money. Sound familiar? The taxi drivers are "trapped in a cycle of poverty."

    Anyway, here's the link:,0,1859150.story

  5. I think the difference in London is that our black cab drivers are self-employed, and have put years of effort into learning The Knowledge. Once they've achieved that, they buy or hire a cab and earn a very good income - much of it in cash. They have nothing to gain by working for Uber, and everything to lose from its competition.