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

A car parked on the side of a building

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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? 


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

Gear change… is it finally time to get excited by the Government’s vision for cycling?

Commuters on bicycle paths

The Government’s new vision for active travel landed late last month and has caused a stir that has gone much further than the usual cycling and walking policy circles. Titled ‘Gear change’, its bold aim is to make cycling and walking the logical choice for short journeys, increasing mode share and reducing congestion. It will capitalise on unprecedented growth in active travel during the coronavirus lockdown period and boost public health, reducing the burden of inactivity and improving resilience to future COVID-19 outbreaks.

To achieve this, the range of policy areas and interventions that are covered is astounding. Promises to review the Highway Code, implement new traffic management powers, provide long term funding, create a zero emission city centre, new design guides, and new planning powers are just the start.

This is clearly an exciting but also challenging time for local authorities, who will have to plan and deliver change on a scale which is not comparable to what has gone before.

Due to the breadth of policy areas covered in the strategy, we have co-authored this piece to discuss how it might impact our different areas of work. So, what excited us about this announcement?

Tom Ellerton, Researcher

TE Staff card

One of my roles at the Urban Transport Group is to look after our active travel workstreams and professional network group. For me, two key elements of the new announcement are the long-term funding commitments and the new design guidance.

A new Cycling and walking investment strategy (CWIS) will be set out in the upcoming Spending Review. The key difference from the first CWIS is the attachment of funding – £2 billion, creating a programme on a similar scale to what we usually see for roads and the railways. This is a huge boost for local authorities who can now plan ahead with greater certainty to deliver a long-term programme of change rather than scraping around in a stop-start funding environment.

The new design guidance is long overdue and will provide local authorities with a steer as to the standard of schemes that they should be looking to implement. It has often been said that bad infrastructure can be worse than nothing at all. If we are to deliver behaviour change and get more people walking and cycling, we need to ensure that the infrastructure works for everyone, so the commitment that all new schemes must be safe for a 12-year-old is a very welcome change.

A new body called Active Travel England will be set up to monitor schemes and ensure that they are within the guidance, as well as providing support to local authorities and gaining some say in planning decisions. It will be crucial to develop good links between this body and local authorities to ensure that we can work together on delivering what is a very ambitious vision.

Clare Linton, Policy and Research Advisor

Dr Clare Linton headshotMy work at the Urban Transport Group spans a whole range of policy areas, from freight to smart transport futures, sustainability to planning – and the new vision for walking and cycling has something for all of them!

Transport is now the largest emitting sector in the UK, contributing around a third of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, with the majority from road transport. In March, the Department for Transport published the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which sets out how transport will meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Shifting demand to public and active travel is a key pillar of this plan, and the new cycling and walking vision demonstrates how this is a clear priority across Government. Active travel is the ultimate zero emission mode and delivering strong ambition for walking and cycling could transform how we travel in our cities and reduce carbon emission in the process.

The vision sets out the role for cycling in ‘last mile’ deliveries and the need for freight consolidation schemes in urban areas to make our deliveries more sustainable and efficient. These are both measures we argued for in our 2018 report ‘White van cities’ which looked at how we can manage the massive growth in van traffic in our urban centres. It would have been good to see a recognition that walking could play a greater role in last mile deliveries. A 2018 study in London found that overall round times for a parcel carrier could be shorter if fewer stops were made and a greater number of deliveries and collections were made on foot. It can also be easy to dismiss cargo bikes as only able to deliver small packages… but last year active travel charity Sustrans managed to move their entire London office by bike, as this YouTube video shows, so let’s think big for cargo bikes!

In our 2019 report ‘The place to be’, we demonstrated how transit oriented development can put public and active transport at the heart of new developments to create more sustainable choices for those who live and work in these areas. In particular, sustainable transport needs to be considered from the outset in planning new developments. As Tom mentioned, Active Travel England will act as a new planning body to ensure that sustainable transport is part of the planning process and help authorities to deliver on the ambition set out in this vision.

Let’s get started

We have done a lot of work over the years making the case for active travel, so it is great to see that this battle is being won. However, our professional network will continue to play a vital role through our active travel group. We have strong connections with key stakeholders in Government through to major NGOs in this space, who will be vital in enabling our members to deliver the greatest benefit from this vision. Previous work shows that where we get active travel schemes right, we can change our cities for the better. It is deeply encouraging that one positive we can take out of the coronavirus crisis, is to make active travel more prominent in our city regions. Let’s get started!

By Tom Ellerton and Clare Linton

Download ‘Gear change’, the Government’s vision for cycling and walking