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