Day-to-day problems that do not just concern me, but any cab-driver or even almost anybody in this town (Brighton)

Emailed to Brighton & Hove City Council, B. & H. City Council European & International Team, B. &. H. Hackney Carriage Office, Streamline Taxis, B. & H. Bus and Coach Company, the Argus – on November, the 27th, 2008! They have given a shit about, response, zero!

Public transport, traffic, pedestrian zones, buses versus tram

The town I have lived in, in Germany, for the bigger part of my life, Freiburg, is a very green town, with a very advanced public transport system, with about 15 different tram routes that cover the area, in addition to trains and buses. For many years now there has been a very cheap, publicly subsidised “regional card”, which entitles to the use of all different means of public transport, trains, trams, buses, within an area that goes from about 50 kilometer in north/south- and east/west-direction. There are also efforts to link this card to the use of taxis and car-sharing, all that to avoid individual traffic, by offering a real alternative to it! Furthermore all is more or less effectively connected to another, there are connections between trains and trams, trams and buses and even tram/buses with taxis! In terms of shared taxis, that can be ordered by telephone-call, linked to routes, or even replacing it. Looking from this very sophisticated system, Brighton public transport seems to be decades behind. I don’t see each means of traffic working together, in Freiburg, trams, buses and taxis work together, in Brighton, they fight and hate each other. For example, lots of buses drive around at night-time, completely empty, in Freiburg they would have been all replaced by a call-based taxi-service, run by 8-seaters, if not efficient.

I know all the discussions pro and contra pedestrian zones, which are basically taking place over here in the same way, as anywhere else in the world. Business is concerned about customers, that can’t use their cars because the town is not car-friendly. As if car-owner would equal rich paying customer – and public transport user, cyclist or pedestrian no-income bum! A lot of reasonable people don’t have cars for obvious reasons or for being eco-friendly, this should be rewarded, whereas, every move towards pedestrian zone, towards banning car-traffic away from the town or shopping-areas, produces an outcry! Yet, all the while, pedestrian zones did prosper enormously in Germany and there has been always a way to transport purchased goods, maybe from car-parks or accesses in the rear (or the simple fact that heavy goods such as washing-machines are home-delivered, or if not, will rather be bought in large shops outside the town-centre in favour of small and expensive items in central areas, such as jewelery). It is not about supplying car-owners with cheap parking and easy access to shops, that brings people from Crawley or London to Brighton, it’s about the quality of life in Brighton, that brings people here! Make them spend a pleasant day and spend some money! Therefore, ban the cars, pedestrianise the axis Church road, Western road and North street and the whole sea-front area and you will see how much everybody will benefit from that and all these areas will prosper. It will attract people from Crawley, from London and from all over the world! Brighton, now infamous for its traffic problems, could be famous as an example how an English town has solved those, in very much the same way that happened to Freiburg, which got famous at least all over Germany for its eco-image, although now lots of other German cities have caught up, even over-took. Brighton could set an example!

I’ve been told that the bus-system works much better than ten years ago. Well, to my eyes, the buses are (as they are and not as they could be!), a disgrace for this town! The town with the oldest tram in the world doesn’t have a tram! How paradox can that be? Like the pedestrian zones there has been discussions about trams in Freiburg, in the sixties they have been removed to make way for cars, after that people knew better, since then the tram-net has been reestablished and widened and it all has been a huge, huge success! I don’t have the scales at hand but trams transport millions and millions of people in Freiburg each year, the capacity is far beyond any double-decker-bus-system can ever achieve, may there be more of them, than the eye can count. Which is about the amount that is there already, too many of them anyway, the system is by far over-strained. Buses can’t move, hinder themselves, people are constantly being hit by buses, one can’t breathe anymore along the big axis all the buses run, I’ve seen people covering their noses in North Street which is, when wind-still, one of the most polluted areas in the world! There’s got to be trams in Brighton, there is no other way! Let’s begin with the big axis along New Church Road, Church Road, Western Road, North Street, Edward Street and Eastern Road and then run them up and down the sea-front! It might be a good idea to built them high, so that pedestrians could walk underneath them, which would help pedestrianise the main roads or at least, the tram should have its own lane, which would be separated from pedestrians, except crossings, fitted with lights. Up untill then, the bus-routes should be reorganised, so that they stop all running through the big axis empty or half empty, making life unbearable there. I think there’s a certain attitude among those that run the bus company, everybody involved in that system, that people who use buses are the entire population and therefore all of them are entitled to have convenient access to the shopping areas, just as the car owners claim the same for themselves, a “we are the population”-attitude! But that’s wrong! What about plain pedestrians who just walk their bit, what about cyclists who haven’t given up on it, despite of the buses who give them a constant cough? What about taxi-users or people who had just been dropped of, close to the shops, yes, what about anybody who just simply wants to walk around on Western Road or North Street, without being killed by a bus or harassed by its exhausts or the unbearable “beast of prey”-like roar? Simply wants to sit outside and enjoy a coffee or a meal? What about them?

So, the people of Brighton & Hove, the population that lives here, or even the visitors, should make the bus users (which are but a minority, seen in a lager scale), change at the beginning and end of the long axis, to board on a route that does nothing but run back and forth that axis – but used to capacity! So instead of ten empty buses, one after another, there would be just one! From that point people would have to change onto all the different routes that go all over the rest of the town. So that a bus-map would look like a tree, with two tops, with its trunk running from Boundary Road in Portslade to Arundel Road in Kemp-Town/Whitehawk and it’s two branches spreading out from there. Same for the Old Stein/London road axis.

At the very least they should be fitted with appropriate filters, I was deeply shocked when I came over here, for I’m not used to such noise and pollution from German buses, they have replaced all of them twenty years ago. The bus company spend so much money on ads about a positive and trendy image, yet in my eyes the fact they just have a few buses with pollution filters and as I see, that is, hear, none with noise-filter, makes its image rather questionable, they can have as many cheerful faces printed on as they like.

Train station

On July, the 22th, the Argus printed an article about a strike, after taxi drivers held a protest, when two cabbies were arrested after a parking row. “Brighton city centre was brought to a standstill when scores of taxi drivers pulled up at busy ranks and got out of their cars in a two-hour protest over the arrests. The arrested drivers had been queuing at a drop-off point in Queen’s Road to get on to the station rank when they were told to move from the double yellow lines.” Since then nothing has changed, and then there was another strike on Wednesday the 19th of November, following a similar incident at the station.

I can’t really believe what’s going on!!!! Why can’t drivers and representatives and council sit together, talk to each other and find a solution for this mess, I’ve witnessed with my own eyes, as a person concerned, for 6 months now? I’m terribly sorry, but that brings out the German in me again. Here are two more quotes from the Argus about that. “A Brighton & Hove city council spokesman added that if cab firms wanted to speak to the authority to ask for help in finding a solution to the problem it would be more than happy to do so.” And: “Southern meets regularly with the taxi association and if this is becoming an issue, then the question of permit allocation may well appear on the agenda of our next meeting”, says Andy Charalambous, vicechairman of taxi firm Streamline. So, where is the problem? Obviously drivers and authorities don’t communicate and then anger breaks its way in spontaneous, yet little effective out-bursts. It’s all a little child-like, the whole thing. Of course and with good cause, there’s an enormous amount of frustration among the drivers and they obviously feel their concerns being neglected. Yet on the other side it doesn’t help much to go on strike, because measures are taken against parking on double yellow lines, which directly leads to the fact passengers have to alight on the middle of the crossing in front of the station and traffic on the crossing can’t move on. I have to drop off a family opposite the station because it was gridlocked again. So, with suitcases, buggy, stuff and little baby-girl, they have to cross Terminus Road. Just because some “colleagues” block the entry, so that they can pick-up there, later. I tell them that I will mention them as an individual example for the necessity of actions that have to be taken, to end that mess.

In general, the image of cab-business is not very good in the public, there’s this general feeling that “they think they own the road”, a bad, almost rowdy image, most of the comments about the article in the Argus were in that direction. Moreover, I can experience this myself, in the cab, the unfriendly, almost hostile way quite a few motorists act towards taxis. Thus, with those actions that gives the public a sense that taxi-drivers can break the law and gridlock traffic when agitated about concerns of their own, whenever they want and get away with it, is only contra-productive! So, probably the council is only reinforced by these not-too-clever-actions in its image of cab-drivers being stubborn and unpredictable, not to be taken serious in their concerns.

Yet, measures have to be taken to put an end to that drama, although there’s much less business now, the station is one of the ranks which are still busy, passengers sometimes have to queue for a long time and there’s got to be a solution! You can’t issue licenses for £420 a year each (that is all in all questionable, to rank at the station with plenty of space in Freiburg is free, I’ve heard of air-ports where they charge taxis), when you can’t provide a service for that, that is to enable waiting taxis to pick up waiting passengers! And the only solution is to install another rank on the drop-off point on the North side, where there’s now yawning void, even free parking for two hours. Now we drop passengers off there, drive all the way around to the rank, adding to pollution and congestion, and sometimes won’t even find a space there! Whereas north-bound passengers have to pay for the detour into New England Street, instead of just being able to board a cab on the north side! Paradox! Although there’s much more space and the boarding time would be much quicker! That’s because, now, people have to wait in queues and taxis have to wait in queues at the same time, until all passengers have boarded, because of the traffic-light at the exit of the station which allows only about five cabs out and the fact, that if there’s a for any reason a delay with the cab ahead, the others can’t just pull-out and over-take, for they are stuck behind it.

I don’t want to suggest to generally move the rank to the north side, for there are only about one third of the fares going north, along New England Street, all the rest goes in directions accessible through the south exit. So, the north rank should be additional, cabs dropping off there should just be allowed to rank there and the whole problem would sort itself out.

Licences/over-capacity

There has been so many new licences issued during the boom and to my experience no one takes them back anymore. Unfortunately there’s an immanent effect to over-capacity, which leads to a vicious circle, the less people earn per hour, the longer they have to, and will, work to get the same amount of money. So when there’s a lot of business, drivers go home after 8 hours, when it’s dead, they work for 12 hours, per saldo there are one third cabs more out on the ranks, than when it’s busy. Paradox, but that’s what it is. Also, in times of bad economy, the resulting unemployment leads to the fact, that people who still have a taxi-licence, yet have worked in better jobs, now go back to cab-driving, when sacked, resulting in the fact, that cars for which no drivers could be found, back then, are now there. And they are competing for, even lesser, jobs! It has been quite dead in Germany, over the last decades, with huge over-capacities, which has led to a huge amount of frustration, to a huge number of totally unmotivated, incompetent and aggressive drivers, and foreign drivers, who don’t speak a word of German, and to the fact that cab-drivers hate each other dearly, passengers come haggling and go from one cab to the next, until they find someone who drives them for half the metered fare, yes, even to the fact that they drivers beat each other up for a fare. The image of cab-business has dropped tremendously, almost to being dodgy. Do you want this to happen in this country? For it’s bound to happen, when measures are not taken against it! Already, I’ve heard of cheating because of less jobs, already I’ve heard of arguments over the fact that a fare has been double booked.

When it is too difficult to take existing licences back, there are still some alternatives, to reduce the number of cabs per shift. Such as, the companies can make agreements to mothball licenses, the hours people are allowed to work can be restricted or, like it is now already, when people are encouraged to “plot on”, it could be done the other way round, people could be encouraged to go home and spent time with their family. In general, now is the time to get rid of dodgy and incompetent drivers!!!! I have personally made the experience that there are some rip-off drivers around, get rid of them, both reduce the competition and offer a better service, which will attract more passengers. Furthermore, I generally have the impression that we can offer a much better service, that people are, for example, intimidated to use taxis, when it’s just for round the corner, because of drivers, that had been rude about that. Now is the time to reconsider that!

Big fleet/merging

The bigger the fleet, the lesser the way for each pick-up, therefore, the merger between the two Streamlines can only be the beginning. Why should there be so much competition, in a trade which is so strictly controlled by the council? There is just one bus-company, imagine ten different companies sending buses down the same route!!! Well, there’s OPEC, a cartel which controls the prices (and let us bleed, so that Dubai can give students 6000 pounds a month without any obligations) or the oil-multis, who seem to be uncontrollable, but to have so many taxi-companies killing each other is ridiculous!!!! Several 24/7 offices, and the fact that for example, a taxi from one company can take a passenger to Heathrow, drives back empty, and minutes later a cab of another company has now arrived at Heathrow, coming there empty as well, and then picks up a passenger! All taxis and all jobs have to be in one pool, there would be pick-ups just around the corner! Furthermore, cost of maintaining would drop, as a result fares could be reduced, as a result there would be more business again!

Private-hire

To have two types of licences, hackneys which can be hailed and pick up at ranks and private hire, which can only be ordered in advance and cannot be hailed is, I’m sorry, utterly ridiculous. Who came up with that idea? In order to reduce large ways for each pick-up, pollution and congestion we have to encourage people to hail cabs and board cabs at ranks! And how can we do that if by some stupid law half of the fleet can’t pick up flags and at ranks? (As far as I know they do this anyway, illegally.) I’m being told that a law has to be changed to get rid of the private hire and replace them with hackney licences and that it’s up to parliament about that and that it would take some time. Well, we could wait till Kingdom come, I would say, when we leave that to parliament, because they are not paid for the amount of actions, like taxi-drivers are, but on a monthly salary. And they very rarely come to a solution fast, if not being put under pressure. Which we should do, by petitions, for example.

Knowledge

Concerning that, just a quote from my blog: “A man boards me at Goldstone Villas rank after my tenth hours work, wants to go to Goldstone Crescent. I completely malfunction, go the wrong way, in the direction of The Drive, instead of Fonthill Road. He is in a bad mood before he enters me, which doesn’t improve hereby, in fact he’s quite p… off with me now. Yet he then says, that 80% percent of the 202020 cabs go wrong! And I thought I’m the only dumb German. So, what do we learn from that? I mean, there are three possibilities, if we are that bad. 1. The drivers have to be trained better, although it took me one year for the license and no one paid me for that time. 2. The knowledge of Saltdean, Rottingdean, Ovingdean, Woodingdean, which took me 3 months to learn and which is completely useless, because no one ever wants to go there (I go more often to Heathrow then to that area), is to be dropped. 3. Or people just simply have to accept the fact that 80% of all Brighton cabbies are not as good as they could be, simply because the job is very tough and it takes years to come close to being perfect, people have to drive long shifts, at the end of which they can’t concentrate anymore.”

Green taxi/environment

We need to change our way of thinking, from just maintaining our bare lives to having a better quality of life, to think environmental. Cab-drivers are stuck in traffic, behind buses and exposed to all sorts of unhealthy exhausts – yet, they also cause them!!!! There are so many cabs in Brighton, doing 100, 200 miles or more a day, inside town, it is not acceptable that new cars are purchased without for example a carbon-particulate filter. To encourage that, there should be some governmental help! All in all, the trade has to obtain a new image, to be able to compete and to maintain its exposed position in transport. We don’t want to be the polluters and bad guys, in a world which is getting more and more aware of environmental issues, (even England now, which is decades behind in that, compared with for example Germany). A further step towards saving energy and avoiding emissions could be to switch off traffic lights in the night. I can’t believe my eyes, even pedestrian crossing lights are still on, in the dead of night, when there is not a car around in an hour!!!! Turn off those traffic-lights at night, which are not urgently required, it is safe and will save a tremendous amount of energy and emissions, it works in other countries.

Toilets

Everybody is aware of the fact, that there are not enough public toilets, yet as good as the English are at improvising, they tend to have an almost German perfectionism, when it comes to public toilets. They have to be little palaces of p… maintained, cleaned, wheel-chair accessible, (even when this is never required) and lockable at night. So, why not have just very plain and simple pissoirs, maybe smelly, like the French have. Yeah, I know, shocking, but it’s better than drunken people urinating publicly against house-walls or taxi-drivers driving dangerously, because all they can think of is their full bladder.

Speed control

English people seem to have a lot of problems, when it comes to speed cameras, it makes them very rebellious. Generally, the acceptance is very low, compared to Germany where there are much more. (Or of course, Switzerland, which is a very, very strict country, compared to Germany, where authority means “Nazi” and therefore is bad and to be declined, even if it makes perfect sense! Speed offenders caught on camera in Zurich, say, 20 miles too fast? They go straight to jail!) But what’s the alternative? People are not reasonable, perhaps they never will be, speeding takes lives, do we prefer DSA-tests for each professional driver, school-patrols, humps? Speaking of, humps! They cost a fortune, ruin nerves, spines and spoilers, make people brake abruptly before them and accelerate noisily after. I keep on telling my passengers about how these things are handled in Germany, mobile speed-camera-units ensure everybody drives slow, nice and steady. If you think about it closely, there is no alternative to mobile speed cameras. Let’s leave the humps, where they are, for God’s sake, but for God’s sake, no more of that nonsense, please!

Ranks

There is a huge number of ranks in Brighton. I don’t even know where some of them are, although I’m doing this job now for half a year, every once in a while I stumble upon a new one, which I haven’t seen before. And a lot of them are all empty! Now, we have to encourage passengers to use ranks, if we don’t want to get grey hairs over looking for house-numbers all the time, but the thing is, a rank will only be frequented by passengers, if there are cabs there, reliably. Ranks, which are empty most of the time, are being neglected. A passenger that boarded me at Rutland rank to go to the Marina, told me, he usually has to walk to the Town Hall rank to get a cab, just as an example. So, where ever there are ranks, we have to make an effort to have cabs on them, encourage them in some way to do so. Some ranks are hopeless yet, there will never the chance to pick up someone there – these ranks have to be given back to the council, this can be an important gesture, that this trade does not only make demands, but is also able to cooperate!

Booking fee

Some passengers do not understand the need for such a thing, they take it as a punishment for their loyalty to the company, they are calling for years now. It has to be made clear to them, maybe by leaflets, that it is so much smarter to raise the fares, that actually cover the costs for the trade selectively, where costs actually result from, (namely by maintaining an office or by getting grey hairs looking for house-numbers), instead of a general increase. Which will only punish those customers that take the little trouble to hail or walk to ranks. I am adamant on the booking fee, even if it’s sometimes results on not even giving me a 20-p-tip, because it shows the way! The next raise in fares should not be general, but the booking fee should be raised up to 2 pounds, maybe even replace the 2 pound 40 starting fee! Someone hailing has to pay the same starting-fee as someone who just sits there and has a cab coming through ten minutes of congestion, ridiculous!

Areas

In times of low business most areas are too small. You just can’t afford to wait in Portslade, or Lower Hangleton or Wish, if there’s no “job soon”, you go straight to Town Centre or Station, with the result that those areas are empty. When there’s a job, all the cabs, that have driven miles to be more central, now have to rush back for miles, which is more work for them and less money at the end of day and customers have to wait all the longer. So, my proposition is to merge areas like Portslade/Wish or Mile Oak/Locks Hill or BHASVIC/Montpelier to one area. It doesn’t take much time to go from one end to another and it encourages drivers to stay and wait in that area. Some areas, on the other hand, with a lot of jobs and traffic are too big, for example North Street. There are two big ranks where most of the cabs, that are booked in North Street area, are ranking, Queens Square and East Street, which are both on the opposite side of North Street area. It was hard to comprehend why the area wasn’t divided in Clock Tower and East Street, when it was just Hove Streamline. Now there are so much more cabs and jobs per square mile and the area still isn’t divided! Well, it is virtually impossible, at day-time, for example, to be in time for a job issued on Old Steine, if you were ranking at Queens Square, because both North Street and North road are regularly congested!

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About Jochen Lembke

Europe's cab-driving writer
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