Sunday, 18 October 2015

The show's not uber til the fat lady sings


I don't know when they disappeared but, once upon a time and surely not that long ago, each London bus sported upon its right butt cheek a simple injunction: Please let the bus out. I was fond of the message, yet also disappointed: it was a clear and simple request, but painfully obvious, too: who needs to be reminded that the bus should be let out?

Presumably an incredibly detailed and expensive evaluation came to this conclusion - that London's road users were indeed aware that they should let the bus out, and that going to the extraordinary lengths of stencilling a short message on the right butt cheek of every London bus did not represent value for money and/or deliver the appropriate return on investment.

(An alternative explanation is suggested by the subsequent appearance on the left butt cheek of every London bus the warning to cyclists that attempting to pass the bus on its left hand side was a potentially lethal activity since - the message says - the bus 'stops frequently', it presumably being the case that London's road users would be profoundly disoriented if they had somehow to pay attention to two omnibusular butts simultaneously and that, all things considered, preserving the lives of the astonishingly stupid cyclists who think they can muscle their way along the inside of a twenty ton metal object is more important than supporting the smooth flow of the daily journeys of millions of Londoners.)

It is my observation, however, being variously a driver, cyclist and pedestrian on London's roads these past twenty five years that the disappearance of the LetMeOut butt sign has coincided with a marked deterioration in the quality, safety, efficiency and politeness of road use in our capital.

Politeness?

Visitors and other new arrivals to London often conclude that Londoners are an impolite and unfriendly bunch.  This seems to reflect their initial experience of the density and intensity of London folk as they go about their business - so many people! Moving so quickly! Through such small spaces!

All of us who choose to stay, however, soon discover that Londoners are merely intent upon their business and assume that everyone else is, too.  They ignore you, in what appears to be an unfriendly fashion, until you need some help - at which point Londoners are remarkably supportive.  As a road user, particularly a car driver, this manifests itself in a very striking fashion: when joining a main road from a side road, particularly when traffic on the main road is moving slowly (as, of course, it usually does), the Londoner will allow their fellow Londoner to fold into the traffic.  This behaviour is not some highly infrequent occurrence which brings a warm glow of surprise at the residual civility of humanity; it is, in London, normal.  (That is not to say it happens all the time, of course; but every time I find myself driving in some other part of the country I am shocked to discover how needlessly discourteous the majority of road users are in these kinds of situations, or how, when I fold into the traffic, London-style, they become enraged that they are now some 6 or 7 metres less further forward than they would otherwise have been.)

Or so it was for many years.  Most recently I have noticed a marked increase in whole range of dis-civilised road behaviour in London: jumping red lights, sneaking along bus lanes, artificially creating an additional lane so as to gain some minor positional advantage, not allowing fellow road users to fold into the traffic, not allowing pedestrians to cross the road - and, for sure, not allowing the bus to pull out.

All the fault of a bare bus butt?

Of course not.  Tis a mere coincidence.  There is a much more obvious answer: London is now a much more crowded place than it used to be, its population having soared over the past decade or so, and the attempt to squeeze more road users into the same finite space inevitably increases the pressure, and thus the tension, and thus the 'bad' behaviour.

Except that this, too, is not enough.  The real culprit is the increased number of minicabs in London.  Their number has risen by more than 50% in the past decade, and by more than a quarter in just the past couple of Uber-years.  Unlike a black cab, which charges a fare based on a combination of distance and time, a minicab charges a fee based only upon the distance it travels. To make money, a minicab driver must make each journey in the shortest time possible, so as to be free as soon as possible to get the next fare.  The only way to make a journey of a fixed length shorter is to attempt to drive more quickly - which, in London, means driving more aggressively.

The price competition accelerated so dramatically by Uber (friends that have used the service report fares that I can scarcely believe) reinforces this trend significantly: with less money per customer, the minicab driver needs to make even more journeys to generate a worthwhile income, so is impelled to drive even more quickly, even more aggressively, even more dangerously.

These vehicles are always on the road, of course, so very visibly 'set the tone', changing the descriptive norms that govern the behaviour of all the other road users, thereby dragging down the whole system.

I predict, on this basis, that there will be an increase in accidents, road-rage incidents and collisions between road users; that a rise in road traffic injuries is already underway (the stats always lag reality) and will worsen over the coming months and years; and that one of London's key strengths (often omitted from the strategies and policy documents), namely its deep capacity for conviviality, is under threat.

It is one of the wonders of complexity that overall system conditions are invariably dependent on just a handful of key elements within the system; and that, just as typically, one or some or even all of these elements can be very small relative to the overall size of the system.  Could it really be that Uber jeopardises not merely the livelihood of our black cab drivers, but the entirety of London's culture?

Legal challenges having failed, it seems unlikely that Uber's free-market methods will be restricted to any significant degree anytime soon.  I propose, instead, that we go back to the bottom and start from there: the right butt cheek of all Uber vehicles and all minicabs should be obliged to sport the message:

SORRY
but I earn less than
the minimum wage





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