Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. If you need a car and a driver to take you from point A to point B, you can flag a taxi cab â€“ or, in many places, if you've got a smartphone you can grab Uber. For the uninitiated, that's an app from a San Francisco-based company that connects you with a private car and driver who sign up to take you where you need to go. Uber is not universally loved, let's say that. Cab drivers around the world have a big problem with the company, and today cabbies from Berlin to London protested against apps like Uber by blocking some main roadways. The cabbies are upset that Uber drivers are not subject to the same regulations that govern licensed taxis. Lewis Norton is a cabby in London, and is Branch Secretary for the RMT Transport Union there. He spoke to me earlier from a protest in Trafalgar Square, where scores of London's iconic black taxis blocked traffic.
Lewis Norton: There's actually zero movement of traffic, I mean solid black cabs as far as the eye can see â€“ from Trafalgar Square down to Big Ben, at the moment.
Werman: So what are the reasons for this protest?
Norton: The reason for this protest is that Transport for London, our licensing body, refused to enforce the law, particularly the 1998 Private Hire Vehicles Act, which Uber circumvents and are in direct contravention of.
Werman: And you believe that Uber, this online transportation service, is violating that law?
Norton: It's absolutely violating. They use their device to replicate the taximeter, which is forbidden in the 1998 Private Hire Vehicles Act. The only kind of vehicle that should have any sort of device that calculates fares and distance elapsed should be a taxi, a licensed London taxi.
Werman: Don't the black cabs â€“ the classic black cabs like the ones you drive, Mr. Norton â€“ aren't they essentially a monopoly? And don't you see Uber as trying to break that monopoly?
Norton: Well, I completely disagree though. The black cab is not a monopoly and it's not a private company. The black cab is essentially public transport, along with the Tube and the buses. What Uber do... Uber are a private company. Uber could have a monopoly in the future, because they are a strong, solely-funded organization. They operate in the same market. The black cabs do not. Most black cabs are part of public transport, and what it is, is that our right for private hire, given the knowledge of London, the rights that we earn are basically being circumvented and given to someone who essentially has an application and drives.
Werman: You just referred to â€œthe knowledge of Londonâ€; that's actually a key part of driving a taxi in London, that's part of the test. Explain what the knowledge is.
Norton: The knowledge of London requires candidates who wish to become taxi drivers to learn over 320 runs, which encompasses 25,000 points of interest and over 5,000 streets. Until someone has completed that test, they are not obliged or not allowed to drive a licensed taxi.
Werman: Right. That's fair, it seems. You have to know these streets. But these days, with GPS, do you really need to know the streets?
Norton: Well, I believe GPS is still not as efficient as the human brain. What also the knowledge is, it's not just essentially about learning roads; it's about determining whether the driver is a good fit and proper character. Because the nature of the black taxi can be publicly hired, that means any person, any individual from any background, can hire me publicly, on the street, and I am obliged to take them within six miles' radius within Charing Cross. People know that we are a safe service to get them from A to B.
Werman: You're suggesting that there are some rigors to becoming a taxi driver in the black cab business in London, but I hear a lot of people who get into the black cab business, driving those classic black cabs â€“ it's basically a white men's club, first of all, say a lot of the critics. Do you agree that it is a tough business to enter?
Norton: Unequivocally, no, it's not a white man's club. I'll be honest with you, that is a very age-old, maybe thirty-year-old stereotype, for certain, they adhere to. And the thing is, the black cabs, the knowledge of London, is open to anyone: man, woman, black, white. It's a fair, fair system. If you wanted to put your time in for three years to learn it, you can become a licensed taxi.
Werman: Considering how chockablock it is down there by Whitehall with all those black cabs, how are you gonna get out of there? You're not gonna be able to get out of there 'til midnight!
Norton: I'll be honest with you, the Metropolitan Police are very efficient. When they want to clear you, they want to clear you. And this is the issue â€“ and actually, irony. We're here today protesting about the law not being upheld, yet when the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London won't uphold the law to quash any of our democratic right to protest, to be sure, they will definitely clear this protest within 20 minutes.
Werman: London cab driver Lewis Norton, who is also the Branch Secretary for the labor union in London with transportation workers. Thank you very much, Lewis.
Norton: Thank you very much.
Werman: You can see photos of the protesting cab drivers in London and throughout Europe at PRI.org.