Breaking rank – How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted taxis in city regions

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It’s been just over three years since the publication of our report, Taxi! Issues and options for city region taxi and private hire vehicle policy, which I authored. The sector has continued to experience transformational change since December 2017 and suffered from the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic over the last year. So, how has the sector fared and what might the future hold? 

Pre-pandemic 

If we examine how the taxi market looked in 2018 and 2019, it was a picture of growing numbers of private hire drivers and a decrease in the numbers of taxi drivers in England. In terms of private hire operators, in London they decreased 7% in 2018-2019, in the rest of England they increased 4.6% in 2018-19 but were still down 6.1% from the peak in PHV operators in 2009. These trends are likely associated with the expansion of Uber in the UK over this period.  

In our 2017 report, we highlighted the issue of cross border hiring, with private hire drivers seeking licences in the areas with the lowest standards and operating wherever they choose. Rossendale, Lancashire, was notorious for having the highest number of licensed private hire drivers but had tightened up licensing conditions to combat this at the time of the publication of our report in 2017. The most recent national statistics show that they have had the largest decrease in licensed vehicles in England, decreasing by almost 50% between 2018-19, so clearly their measures have been working. Though the data suggests that there are other areas seeing high increases in licensed vehicles, so cross-border issues have not disappeared altogether. As we suggested in our report, introducing a requirement that taxi and private hire journeys start or end in the area they are licensed would help to reduce problematic cross-border hiring. 

In 2019, the Government consulted on changes to the statutory guidance for licensing taxi and private hire vehicles. We welcomed this consultation (see our response) and in particular the strengthening of protection for users, which we called for in our 2017 report.  

We have also seen progress on the decarbonisation of the taxi market in the last three years. When we published our report, the first plug in black cabs were entering the market and areas were beginning to develop policies to support the transition to zero emission taxis and private hire vehicles. Since then, we have seen plug in taxis entering the fleet and areas like Birmingham incorporating taxis into their plans for clean air. 

Clearly, some of the regulatory challenges have improved and there are indications that protection for users could be forthcoming. However, legislative changes are still required in areas such as national minimum standards for licensing, allowing licensing officers to undertake enforcement action on any taxi or private hire vehicle operating within their area and giving authorities the powers to limit the numbers of private hire vehicle and driver licenses.

Taxis and the pandemic 

2020 was undoubtedly been a tough year for many sectors. Instructions to stay at home, avoid public transport and keep your distance has hit transport ridership hard. It is hard to find specific data for the impact on taxi and private hire use but there have been stories across the media of drivers struggling to make ends meet. And taxi drivers are some of the most at risk from COVID-19. ONS data showed that taxi drivers had one of the highest rates of deaths, at 36.4 per 100,000. BAME people are more at risk of dying of COVID-19 and many of those working in the taxi sector are from ethnic minorities. In 2018/19, White and Asian or Asian British made up 42% and 40% of taxi and private hire drivers respectively

We do not have any national data to show us what has happened to licensed drivers and operators during the pandemic, but we can zoom in on some areas that do have data to look at what has been happening there. In London, data from November 2020 showed that one in five taxis had been taken off the road. And the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association suggested that only 20% of drivers still have their vehicles in London.  

Transport for London are supporting the taxi and private hire sectors in managing the coronavirus outbreak. They been advising drivers on how to keep themselves and passengers safe, have produced video resources on how to keep their vehicles clean and been handing out protective equipment. This has enabled people to make essential journeys and helping to keep London moving.

In Leeds, pre-pandemic, the trends were similar to those outlined above for England – growth in private hire drivers, declining private hire operators and taxi drivers. We can begin to see the impacts of the pandemic with declining licences for private hire and taxi drivers and operators in the summer of 2020. 

So what can we learn from this? We know the taxi market is an important part of our transport system, providing vital mobility options to disabled people and offering an option at times of day and in locations that public transport might not serve. Adults with ‘mobility difficulties’ make twice as many taxi or private hire trips than those who do notpeople in households without access to a car make four times as many taxi or private hire trips as those with a car; and those in the lowest real income quintile make more trips by taxi or private hire than any other income quintile. These statistics show why the taxi market is so important for social inclusion and access to opportunities. We need to ensure that this sector survives the pandemic and can continue to support those who need it most. And wider regulatory changes are needed to ensure that the taxi market keeps pace with technological and societal changes.

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

Download the report Taxi! Issues and options for city region taxi and private hire vehicle policy

Shared mobility in the new normal?

Reflecting on my blog post after last year’s CoMo Conference brings home to me just how much the world has changed. Pandemic, social distancing, face coverings, R-number were all things that were unheard of or vague and distant threats. For most of the last year we avoided non-essential travel and public transport patronage has suffered. But how has shared transport fared? And what might its role be in the ‘new normal’? CoMo held its 2020 conference online last month, exploring some of these questions and more. Here are some of my thoughts.  

Shared transport in the pandemic 

Shared transport operators stepped up in the early days of the pandemic, particularly seeking to support key workers to access jobs as people avoided public transport. Many bike hire schemes offered discounts and free rides to those working on the frontline. There was a huge growth in cycling over the Spring and Summer, with cycling rates in the week at 165% of pre-lockdown levels on average in the week and at 265% at the weekend during May and June, as people made the most of good weather and quiet roads. Shared bike schemes saw increased use, with Santander Cycles in London having its busiest ever day (on a normal working day) on Wednesday 24th June, with 51,938 hires. 

The UK Government accelerated e-scooter trials to support those who needed to travel. These are still in the early stages but initial results from Nottingham’s trial show that they are popular. In the first four weeks, 3,000 people registered to use the scheme, 19,000 rides had taken place, with over 38,000 miles ridden. And a key worker scheme will be launching soon that will provide an e-scooter on longer-term hire.  

Transport decarbonisation  

These facts, from Ali Clabburn at Liftshare, made me stop in my tracks. 50% of commuters drive alone and they are responsible for 82% of commuting emissions. Pre-Covid, commuting by car contributed 15 million tonnes of CO2 every year, 5% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Given we are seeing a return of car travel to pre-pandemic levels while public transport patronage remains lower, this could be exacerbated in the coming months and years. Shared, sustainable and public transport options are key to decarbonising our transport system. The Government is set to publish its Transport Decarbonisation Plan shortly and you can find our response to their consultation here. Richard Dilks from CoMo has also written about the role for shared transport in decarbonisation here: Decarbonisation: cutting edge ideas from the past – CoMoUK.  

Social inclusion  

Where it’s designed well, shared mobility can help to address challenges associated with social inclusion. In Portland, Oregon, the Bureau of Transportation worked with their e-scooter operator to ensure that low income areas were served and found high support for e-scooters amongst people of colour and low-income groups. It is also important to engage with disabled people in the design of shared mobility schemes to ensure inclusive design, enable the widest range of possible users and to mitigate any negative impacts for example around street clutter or riding on pavements. And as one operator suggested during the CoMo conference, the majority of people will not be using shared micro-mobility schemes, so making sure that these systems work well for non-users is important.  

Revenue funding and resourcing at transport authorities 

A theme that appeared throughout the CoMo conference is the need for cities and towns to develop a strategic and joined up approach to shared mobility as part of wider transport and spatial planning. However, declining revenue funding for transport, coupled with more than a decade of austerity that has stripped much of the expertise and capacity from local authorities, makes this a challenging prospect in many areas. If we want truly joined up, integrated planning for a sustainable and decarbonised transport future, then we need to invest in building capacity in our local and regional authorities to enable this. 

Shared mopeds 

Shared electric mopeds were a mode I was vaguely aware of, but presentations from operators during the CoMo conference brought them to life for me. And personally, I’m excited about them! The idea of being able to hop on an electric moped to make the last mile (or two) of a multi-modal public transport journey is attractive to me, and I think it could be a good gateway to car-free or car-light living. Though I would be slightly concerned that this would abstract from active travel trips, with potential negative health outcomes.  

A swiss army knife for personal mobility 

Finally, this phrase from Sandra Phillips from movmi really appealed to me: ‘a swiss army knife for personal mobility’. Having the right tool for the right job is what sells a swiss army knife, and we need the right modes and options for the right journeys. Shared mobility can offer multiple options in distributed locations, so you can hop on a shared bike or e-scooter when you arrive in a city on a train. Sometimes you might need to make a journey by car, but maybe if all the other tools or options are available then those car journeys are fewer and car club membership looks more attractive than owning your own private car? Taken together, we could see more agile journey patterns and more sustainable lifestyles as a result. 

You can catch up on all the presentations from the CoMo 2020 conference here: Conference – CoMoUK 

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group, and is on the Board of Trustees at CoMo

The world turned upside down?

A progressive way to turn the world upside down would be to do as the Welsh Government has done with the M4 road scheme in South Wales – and look at how the money could be better spent on giving the sub-region a public transport network second to none

There’s a risk that the short horizons of the Covid crisis, Zoom fatigue and the desire for a return to normality tricks us into thinking that the normal we last saw in March is still there. That our main task is to claw our exhausted way back to it. That’s certainly the inexorable logic of HMT ‘recovery plans’ where the funding rug is pulled as soon as ‘normality’ can be glimpsed on the horizon. But what if the normal we had isn’t there anymore? The pandemic turned our world upside down but will it fully right itself afterwards?

There’s a big debate going on around whether Covid has triggered a fundamental realignment between the relative strength of core cities, secondary towns and cities and the suburbs. To some extent I’m going to cop out on this on the grounds that it’s too early to say. But there sure are a lot of powerful signals out there amongst all the noise. A lot of this relates to who can work from home and who can’t. The new Covid divide between the blue collar and the loungewear economy. Between the stay at home Covid aristocracy and those who have never taken part in a Zoom work call. Between those who travelled to work throughout the worst of the pandemic and those that sat it out.

This plays out geographically. Centre for Cities research that shows that London, Reading and Edinburgh have among the highest shares of workers able to work from home (more than four in ten) whereas in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke just two in ten workers are able to do so. This could also be a reason why town and city centres serving less prosperous areas have done better for footfall – relative to both more prosperous areas and core cities (as office workers stay home, and fit in more on-line shopping in the process).

After Covid, many of those who can work from home are going to want the best of both worlds. The logical consequence for those jobs that can be done anywhere is hybrid working with offices repurposed as people places that you might actually want to spend time in so that deeper collaboration can happen than via Zoom. There are signs too that the flight from expensive city centre living in small spaces is starting earlier in life and in greater volumes. Bringing with it the potential for a revitalisation of fading suburbs as more people seek the space to work and enjoy the good life whilst bringing as much of the trappings of hipster city life with them as possible. This also ties in with the idea of the 15-minute city or cities of villages. Instead of each part of a city or a city region having one job to do (dormitory, retail, work) everywhere does everything with shops, workhubs and services within easy reach.

Some are embracing this hoped-for shift – including C40 cities (which represents the world’s superstar cities). The Welsh Government has set an ambition for around 30% of the workforce to continue working from home, even when coronavirus restrictions have eased. It sees potential long-term benefits in reducing congestion, air pollution and improving work-life balance. It is also looking into developing a network of ‘community based working hubs’ – office-like environments within walking or cycling distance of homes, shared by public, private and voluntary bodies. It says that the “intention is to develop a hybrid workplace model, where staff can work in the office, at home, or in a hub location”. This offers the potential for more of a ‘goldilocks’ economy where economic activity and vitality is dispersed throughout conurbations rather than what we’ve had – which is piping hot core city economies and stone cold secondary centre economies.

But is this a vision that only works for a certain type of person who can enjoy and afford it because it fits how they work like a glove? Which leads us onto the possibility if what The Economist and others has described as ‘the 90% economy’. More fragile and less innovative, due to the retreat from a vibrant public sphere. And more unfair, both because of higher unemployment but also as the blurring of work and home responsibilities increases gender divides and disadvantages for younger workers.

We can see the evidence of some of these trends in real time during the pandemic. More people have been using buses than trains. The light rail systems that specialise in transporting lower income and blue collar industrial workers have been doing way better on patronage than those that don’t (i.e. the West Midlands Metro and Croydon Tramlink). In fact, more widely what the Covid crisis has demonstrated is what was always true: A core role of public transport is moving those on low incomes (including low pay key workers) as well as blue collar workers.

If fewer trips are going to be made by those who can work and shop from home then catering to this solid base becomes more important. Couple that with higher levels of unemployment then what does this mean for the fares we charge and the nature of the public transport offer? In core urban areas should we be looking at something cheaper for this base to use? Steadier rather than spectacular? A simple to use, green and low cost utility which means the low paid can get to work and which is part of the plumbing for modern decarbonising economies. A service that reflects the civic identity of the place it serves rather than something that shouts in many voices at the public, in an unconvincing way, about how it’s a BMW equivalent product at a taxi-equivalent price?

How does all that square though with the pressure that is coming from the Treasury to show willing on making public transport worse, and more expensive, as a blood sacrifice in return for their frustration for them having no choice but to provide additional revenue support during the pandemic? Fare increases always make the Treasury feel better – a little win to show who is top dog in Whitehall office politics.

If revenue support is in short supply, and the consequences of this are a steepening of the trajectory of local public transport decline, does this pave the way for a fresh push on road user charging? The three factors that suggest it might are the climate imperative, the state of local and national finances and the decline in VED (Vehicle Excise Duty) revenue as the vehicle fleet transitions away from petrol and diesel. The last two factors are playing on the Treasury’s mind in particular, which is why they have started to float the concept.

Perhaps the ultimate endgame which would play to public transport’s advantage would be a MaaS (Mobility as a Service) payment platform which would combine payment and information options for road use, public transport, car hire, taxis, new mobility options and active travel. Factoring in the environmental and social costs would help incentivise behaviour in a way which supported wider goals around best use of available road space and decarbonisation objectives.

Short of that lofty and potentially enraging goal there are more immediate ways in which the Department for Transport budget could be reframed in a way which gives public transport more of a fighting chance. And that’s to transfer some of the funds out of Highways England bank account which are currently being wasted on a zombie national road programme, set to consume a mindboggling £27bn over the next five years in England alone. There’s £350m in there just for scheme development (reanimating brain dead road schemes that have been kicking around since the 1970s). You wouldn’t need to spend £3.50 on consultancy advice to know that these schemes will funnel more traffic onto urban roads (which we are supposed to be repurposing for buses and active travel) as well as generating yet more dystopic car dependent and carbon intensive sprawl.

The Welsh Government has taken the right approach to all this through commissioning a study on the alternative to the £1.4bn M4 scheme in South East Wales which lays bare just how transformational using road building cash could be for public transport in the sub-region. New stations, a single integrated ticketing system, an enhanced regular interval bus service – all there for the taking. A mini-Switzerland for public transport – with nature and the planet the winner too. That really would be the right way to turn the world upside down.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine