During his 30 years as a cabbie, Steve has seen dramatic changes in London, taxi driving and passengers' behaviour.
I used to be a milkman, but I could see the milk industry was going to fold because of the supermarkets. A friend whose dad was a cabbie had been nagging me for years to join him in doing The Knowledge. I hadn’t a clue what was involved, but he told me you could earn reasonable money and work for yourself, which appealed to me.
Doing The KnowledgeYou can do The Knowledge as quickly or as slowly as you want to, and I’ve known people who’ve taken four years to do it, but I decided to take it head on and devote all my spare time to it, so it only took me 18 months.
There's a blue book, which contains hundreds of runs across London, and you have to memorise every single one of them, including all the landmarks. So you really have to know London inside out. Before doing The Knowledge, I hardly ever went north of the river, so I didn’t know my way round at all.
Before you get your licence, you’re tested orally on the shortest route to certain destinations. It’s good fun. It can’t be that difficult, because I did it!
Black-cab safetyYou’re pretty safe in the back of a black cab. We all take criminal record checks; the history of the black-cab trade goes back a long way, and the drivers take a lot of pride in their job.
When a black-cab driver does something wrong, it really makes the news – a few years ago, there was a guy who was drugging his passengers with Champagne and sedatives, but fortunately incidents like that are incredibly rare.
As a driver, I’ve never felt vulnerable. Behind you is a panel made of reinforced plastic, so no one can really get to you, and you can lock the doors if you need to. I don’t have a smart phone and I'm not on a radio circuit so I can’t contact anyone but it doesn't worry me.
If I don’t like the look of someone as I’m pulling up, I just don’t stop. Waste of time: drive on! After you’ve been driving for as long as I have, you learn to weigh people up in an instant by looking at their face. It’s like a sixth sense.
Technology and the way we workUntil very recently, 98 per cent of my fares used to hail me down off the street, but in the last eight months or so I’ve had to get a tablet and an app because the business is changing.
Now, instead of walking 100 yards to the end of their street to hail a cab, people like to use smart phone apps to order taxis and that’s affecting our trade. They sit in their front room and wait for a cab to come to them.
If you get the job, you have to drive to them so you’re using your time for free. Then you’ve got two minutes’ waiting time, for free. So it’s better for the customer but much worse for the driver.
It’s difficult for black cabs to adapt to what’s happening, because our price structure is set by Transport for London (TfL), so we can’t negotiate fares, whereas private hire companies can compete against each other.
With the new technology, minicab firms can negotiate your fare online without talking to anyone; they can offer you a deal. Black-cab drivers can’t do that, because we’re metered and the price is set by TfL, so it puts us at a disadvantage.
I think we’re going to have to conform a little, which means we’ll probably earn less money. We’ve always been the knights of the road and dominated the taxi business in London, but it’s changing out there.
There’s a lot of talk about the new technology: the drivers are worried about how it’s going to affect business. If I was a younger guy, I’d be very upset, but I’ve got 30-odd years under my belt and I’m hoping to retire soon.
Cabbies and London lifeBack in the 80s, people were pretty wild; their behaviour nowadays is so much better than it used to be, and London is a much more civilised place.
In my early days as a cabbie, people drank a lot more. They'd go out drinking on Friday lunchtime and that was the end of the shift. It’s not like that any more. Attitudes to drinking have changed.
Central London has changed an awful lot, too. There aren’t as many native Londoners in the central area; instead, there are more sophisticated Europeans, so there isn’t the drinking culture there used to be.
There are cabbies' shelters across London. I don’t spend much time in them, though. They’re like a tardis: small on the outside, but inside there are about 12 people, all talking at the same time.
Lovely jubbly in the back of my cabIf something strange is going on in the back of my cab, it’s normally of a sexual nature. When I was younger, people often invited me to join them in hotel rooms and stuff like that. Maybe it’s because I’m old now and my hair’s gone grey, but I don’t get those offers any more!
I picked up George Best several times; I used to see him around the King’s Road, normally staggering along, with a bottle! I’ve taken David Jason – Del Boy – a couple of times, and a number of members of parliament and a few ministers. Tony Benn was an interesting guy. He spoke a lot of sense, he was a very nice chap. Fortunately he wasn’t smoking his pipe at the time.
Smoking’s not allowed in black cabs any more; it was banned 10 years ago, which has been a real blessing for me. I’m a non-smoker, but the people who use cabs are often smokers and drinkers and they were always puffing away so it was pretty foul. It’s so much nicer now: the vehicle stays cleaner and I’m not coughing as much.
Avoiding problem passengersYoung women who’ve had a drink are the worst for throwing up. I’ve never had a guy throwing up in the cab. The price list on the door includes a soiling charge of £50, but getting it out of them is a different matter.
I try to avoid fares if they're young women who've been drinking. It can be difficult because someone will hail you down, open the door and the next thing you know, their friend’s come out of a shop doorway and jumped into the back of the cab.
The other problem used to be people running off without paying, which happened about once a month in the 80s. That hasn’t happened for a long time. There’s nothing you can do; you can’t leave your vehicle, so you just have to swallow it and move on.
People don't chat any moreI own my own vehicle, which means I’m known as a musher in the trade. I don’t know many other cab drivers. It can be quite a lonely job, because you’re in the front and your passengers are in the back.
You don’t talk to many people nowadays because as soon as they get in, they all get straight on their mobile phones. It’s a lonelier life than it used to be. That has changed dramatically. Thirty years ago, I used to talk to a lot of people, because they were all Londoners, and we had a wider window to talk through. But now I’ve got an intercom system, which makes it difficult to have a conversation.
With the new app system, drivers are like robots: you get a message about a fare, you pick them up, they get in and you just follow the directions. They don’t even have to say hello or goodbye. They just get in the cab, get out and that’s it. It’s a changing world.
I miss the contact, because you get bored and having a chat with someone perks you up.
Car wars: Steve’s take on black cabs vs minicabs• Safety Black cabs really are safe. Every day there are around a quarter of a million journeys a day in London in black cabs, and incidents are very rare. Having said that, you are a lot safer than you used to be in a private hire cab. When I started in the 80s, minicabs were unlicensed and unregistered, whereas they are registered now, and for the last 10 years their drivers have had the same security checks as black-cab drivers. You are probably as safe in a licensed minicab as a black cab now.
• Getting around Minicab drivers don’t have The Knowledge as such. They use satnavs, which black-cab drivers would never be allowed to use.
• Ease of use With this new app, Uber, minicab firms have really got their act together. Once the customer phones for a cab, details of the vehicle, route and even the driver’s face can be sent to their smart phone. The passenger can set the meter themselves when they get into the vehicle, and give feedback about their journey afterwards.
In London, it’s against the law for private hire firms to have fixed meters. Only black cabs can have fixed meters, because you’re picking up off the street and you haven’t got time for all that negotiation.
• Paying for it With Uber, the passenger has their credit card registered with the minicab company, so no cash changes hands.
The good and bad about being a black-cab driverI’ve loved this job. Working for yourself is really nice: I’ve never had to work for The Man. You’re a free agent in a black cab, as opposed to minicab drivers who tend to work for a company.
The beauty of it is the flexibility. You decide the hours you want to work. When our children were young, I’d stay at home during the day when my wife was at work, and then I’d go out to work in the evening. We didn’t need childcare, so that was a great bonus.
These days, I choose to work very long days – 12-hour shifts – for about five days, then have a few days off, which I use to play tennis and other sports. It’s not a bad way to make a living.
Tell your own story on the Storyboard.
Come and chat on Logarty talk.