No easy ride

It’s taking longer to book a private hire taxi or Uber, while black cabs are fewer on the ground. Where have they all gone and what does this mean for public safety?

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It’s a familiar movie scene: beautiful woman in heels hurries out of picture-perfect townhouse, waves her arm and shouts “TAXI!” Cab pulls up out of nowhere, woman jumps in the back and says: “Step on it.”

“The drivers went and got other jobs – delivery driving for supermarkets was a popular one.”

A decrease in the number of cabs available in recent months means the reality for many would-be passengers involves hanging around waiting for a taxi to materialise, before giving up and resorting to other means of transport. If they’re not waiting for a lift, they’re opting for the bus or walking.

In March 2021, there were 251,100 licensed taxis and private hire vehicles on the street, a decrease of 15.9 per cent since 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics. Even more dramatically, the Licensed Private Car Hire Association believes the industry has lost 160,000 drivers from a workforce that had totalled 300,000 before the pandemic.

For women, the safety implications are numerous and plain.

With one in three women experiencing physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organisation, the opportunities for predators to approach women are increased when waiting for transport for extended periods of time. For women who end up making their journey on foot, they are increased further still.

That many women hailing or booking taxis are heading home from a night out and could be intoxicated makes them particularly vulnerable, leading some to make decisions they normally wouldn’t: accepting a lift from a stranger, riding in an unlicensed cab or even drink-driving (one in five drink-drive accidents involve a female driver, according to the ONS).

Where have all the cab drivers gone, and why?

Rick Ellison, 51, has worked as a driver for C Cabs in Blackpool for 20 years.

“There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of drivers, specifically night drivers, due to the Covid lockdown,” he says. “When the first lockdown was being lifted [in summer 2020] but venues were only allowed to open until 10pm, there was no nighttime trade, so the drivers went and got other jobs – delivery driving for supermarkets was a popular one – and since everything opened up fully, the drivers haven’t returned to the trade, probably because they’re earning a decent wage, seeing more of their families and not having to deal with drunken idiots.”

Jo Bakirk, 60, also from Blackpool, uses black cabs specifically to reduce her risk of contracting Covid-19. “I’ve got an autoimmune disease that makes me high risk, so I won’t get in a car if there’s no screen between myself and the driver,” she says.

Bakirk called a manager at Blacktax after waiting for a cab at Victoria Hospital for 20 minutes in September.

“He thinks there’s been a shortage of drivers since the coronavirus came along because drivers are afraid of catching it – some passengers refuse to wear masks,” she says. “That and Brexit means there are fewer drivers coming to work from overseas. Uber has probably gobbled up a few customers as well.”

Although Uber has devoured a hefty slice of the cab market (claiming to account for 6.4 per cent of all bookings in the fourth quarter of 2020), the driver shortage extends to the taxi app, with disgruntled customers complaining of long waits and fare hikes after the pandemic shut down its ride-hailing operations for most of last year.

“We are encouraging 20,000 new drivers to sign up in order to meet rider demand as cities get moving again,” a spokesperson for Uber’s UK business told broadcaster CNBC.

Natasha Speight, 27, from Manchester, used taxis daily to get home from her job as a hairdresser before the pandemic hit. “It’s dark when I finish work in winter, so sharing a cab with a junior who lives on my road made sense. Since I’ve come back to work [in April], I can’t book an Uber to save my life and every time I see a black taxi drive by, its light’s off.

“I get the bus now. It takes 20 minutes longer and I’ve still got a 10-minute walk at the end of it. It costs more as well. The one on my route doesn’t do contactless [or accept large bills] so I have to make sure I’ve got the right change.

“I’m thinking of learning to drive but that’s no good for my wallet, or the environment, to be honest. I know it sounds dramatic but the impact [a lack of taxis] has had on my life is insane. I’m properly fed up.”

Last month, in an effort to rebuild public confidence after the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer shook the nation, police advised women who feel in “real and imminent danger” to “flag down a bus”. The effort was poorly received, with many feeling the solution to systemic male violence had been placed at the door of the victims.

“I had a bloke sit next to me when there were loads of pairs of seats free the other week,” says Speight. “I don’t know if he wanted to chat me up or what but he was harmless in the end. But if you’re on a bus and some bloke’s bothering you, you’ve only got two choices: stay on the bus, or get off. And they’re the same two choices the bloke has. I have been scared walking home from the bus before. It’s not a rough area but it’s dark, it’s cold and I always keep my house key in my hand [to fend off potential attackers] – I think most women do these days. It’s sad. We shouldn’t have to do that. And let’s be honest, what chance do I have, a 5ft 3ins woman with a key, if the worst was to happen?”

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority last week considered a report showing that demand for public transport was on the rise during the weekends and for leisure trips, but noted a shortage of taxi drivers. This has become apparent at a local level, in Bradford, for instance, where the Better Taxi Action Group said in the summer that 30-40 per cent of drivers had decided to work in Leeds instead.

The driver shortage means women like Speight are taking a risk every time they leave work, simply by being female people who exist.

Last month, the government promised an extra £23.5 million for its Safer Streets Fund, which aims to help women and girls feel safer when out in public. Cheshire received the joint-highest cash injection, and has put a portion of the £1.1 million award towards a safer taxi scheme.

In Liverpool and Cumbria, taxi drivers will be able to receive “bystander training” to help prevent sexual violence, equipping them to act as “guardians” to make passengers feel safer. A taxi marshal scheme introduced in Manchester was reported to be accompanied by increased perceptions of safety among taxi users, and a 50 per cent drop in crime at marshalled ranks compared with the year before, according to the Home Office.

But until adequate availability of safe transport in the form of taxis increases in all counties across the north, many women will continue to feel unsafe in the towns and cities they previously regarded as safe spaces.

Image: Purepix/Alamy

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