London: the world’s most visited city. Home to the red double-decker bus, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Changing the Guard and the black taxi.
That “most visited city” tag, which caused a recent flurry, is a little dubious. It is based on the International Passenger Survey, which is based on a sample of interviews with passengers coming and going from the UK. The Office for National Statistics candidly describes it as an “estimate”.
Still, London draws millions of tourists and has become a global capital while maintaining its traditional symbols – except for that boxy black taxi, which is now the whatever-colour-you-like whatever-shape-you-can-think-of taxi. No city competing for tourists would throw away something as distinctive – except for London, which has.
This week BYD, the Warren Buffett-backed Chinese carmaker, announced it would introduce “minicabs” into London, with the intention of eventually selling proper London taxis that are available not just for private hire but can ply the capital’s streets for fares.
It is the latest of a slew of potential competitors to the London Taxi Company, builder of the TX4, the classy, roomy traditional-style cab that says “London” to potential visitors from all over the world.
BYD follows Nissan and Metrocab – part of the Frazer-Nash group – which plan to sell taxis in London, and Mercedes-Benz, whose Vito people carriers are already ploughing through the capital as licensed taxis.
The Vito taxis remind me of the Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese claims to have a cat licence and a post office clerk says: “That is a dog licence with the word ‘dog’ crossed out and ‘cat’ written in, in crayon.”
The Vito vehicles are not London taxis. They are vans with yellow lighted “taxi” signs jammed on their roofs. They are infuriating proof that London has lost its way.
There are mitigating factors. While the traditional London taxi is a design beauty, its manufacturer has had one financial prang after another. Once a consortium of manufacturers and dealers, it became a division of engineer Manganese Bronze, which went into administration and was taken over last year by China’s Geely. So the London Taxi Company cannot claim to be a reliable monopoly.
Second, Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, is trying to cut the capital’s air pollution by insisting that its taxis produce zero emissions by 2018.
The offerings of BYD, Nissan and Metrocab will be electric, but then Geely says it plans to produce electric cabs too.
So what is wrong with the new cabs? London has not achieved its international pre-eminence by standing still but its genius, indeed the British genius, is to build on what went before. The London Underground’s logo, trains and map have modernised without losing the look that made them so recognisable.
The same is true of London’s buses. The new Routemaster bus, one of Mr Johnson’s pet projects, updates previous models while, in design terms, quoting from them. Mr Johnson has banished the dreadful single-decker “bendy buses” from London’s streets.
Nissan seems to understand London’s way of doing things. Pictures of its NV200 taxi, which it plans to build in Coventry, home of the London taxi, suggest it will pay homage to the traditional design while giving its cab a modernised, but still recognisable, look.
Metrocab’s design appears to be based on similar principles, but BYD’s e6 looks set to follow the Mercedes “cat licence” route.
This could have been avoided if Transport for London, which licenses taxis, had insisted on a recognisably London design for new entrants. That would not be over-intrusive for an authority that already specifies the distance between seats and the maximum tint of the windows.
Failing that, it could have insisted that all London taxis be black. The traditional cabs have been allowed other colours for years now, but if taxis are permitted to be different shapes, they should all be London’s traditional colour. (Black Mercedes Vitos are marginally less ghastly than the blue or grey ones.)
New York’s taxi rules state that “the exterior of the vehicle must be painted taxi yellow” – and who could imagine the Big Apple agreeing to anything else?
We can still win London’s battle. If you approach a taxi rank or hail a cab in the street and an interloper offers you a ride, say: “Sorry, mate, I want a real London taxi.”