Uber and black cabs16 minute read

Semiotics is the “study or science of signs” and their role as transmitters of meaning in culture (Hall, 1997). Hall argues that although signs do not have meanings in themselves, they are vehicles which carry meaning and operate as symbols which represent meanings we want to communicate. A semiotic analysis evaluates how signifiers construct and transmit meaning. I will be undertaking a semiotic analysis on two objects, or in Hall’s terms two signs. The first sign is London taxis (black cabs) and the second sign is Uber taxis. This essay will argue that Uber and black cabs convey two contrasting meanings and ways of thinking about London. On one hand, black cabs signify tradition, exclusion and quality. On the other hand, Uber taxis signify innovation, inclusion and of recent, poor regulation which threatens to disrupt traditional means of transport.

Figure one black cabs
Figure 1. Black Cabs
Source: (City A.M., 2016)

The image of the black taxi is as quintessentially British as that of the Houses of Parliament, the Union flag or Big Ben. Although Fig.1 might just look like a regular taxi, it signifies meanings which people outside the cultural code might overlook. The black taxi represents much more than a means of transport or a vehicle. Rather, it is “an indispensable and iconic element of London’s identity” (Dudley, 2017) signifying the city’s history of transportation and an ongoing battle for London streets. The black cab can be traced back to the mid-1600s, first being referred to as the hackney carriage (the name deriving from the old meaning of hackney – a horse for hire). At that time, the black taxi “signified metropolitan existence” and the coaches carried a “particular symbolic significance because they were one of the capital’s first novelties” (Jenner, 2003). The hackney carriage was once a signifier of novelty and progress which represented that London was a world-leading city. This can be juxtaposed to what the black cab signifies today – a traditional means of transportation and continuation having been on the streets of London for over 300 years. This is interesting because the same object can signify different meanings which as Hall suggests, shows that meaning is not stagnant and can change over time. The black cab is commonly found on souvenirs or in movie scenes which feature the city. To many, it is much more than a means of transportation, it is culturally significant. Drawing on Hall’s argument, black cabs are part of a cultural code which represent not just transport but a long tradition of Britishness and identity.

 

Figure two uber
Figure 2. Uber
Source: (Daily Mirror, 2016)

 

Likewise, an Uber does not just represent a means of transport, rather it is also a signifier. Uber represents a global, innovative, revolutionary threat to a long-established means of transportation. Uber was established in 2009 as an app to request black-car premium service in order to make the taxi system in San Francisco more efficient. The company first started off by partnering with limousine drivers to offer high class and efficient service to customers. In 2012, Uber moved to London and expanded its fleet from strictly limousines to offer other types of cars in an additional cheaper service called “Uber X”. Although Uber’s success often signifies that it is a threat, its success can also be viewed as an opportunity; an opportunity for the taxi industry to rebrand and modernise. Arguably, Uber’s technology could have been complimentary to black cab services. Uber tried to achieve this by introducing the “TAXI” option which allowed consumers to book black cabs through the Uber app but this model was refused (Powley, 2016). This signifies an attempt by Uber to assimilate into London culture rather than disrupt it. On the other hand, Uber’s competitive pricing strategy also signifies competition rather than collaboration. There is no doubt that Uber has disrupted and dominated the taxi industry, with its brand name now being used as a verb (Moon, 2017). Uber and black cabs signify two contrasting meanings of London society. Uber signifies London as a cosmopolitan, multicultural, innovative city with possibility and opportunity.  On the other hand, black cabs signify long-standing traditional and cultural ideas about London. As Paul Walsh, a black cab driver remarks, “Uber is not just killing a business model, it’s killing a culture”. His point supports Hall’s argument that culture and meaning are created and communicated by signs because to him, black cabs are not just objects, they signify a culture – a culture of Britishness. This might explain why these two objects are in conflict, because they signify contrasting views about London society.

Black cabs also signify exclusion because of their high tariffs, exclusive use of bus lanes and their unique ability to “ply for hire” (pick passengers up from the street). Black cab fares are significantly more expensive than other forms of transport. A one-mile 13-minute trip could cost up to £9.This is a relatively expensive one mile trip compared with what it would cost on the bus (£1.50) or the underground (£2.40). Based on this, black cabs can be a signifier of social class as well as larger socio-economic divides in society. Darbéra showed that black cab users are mostly men, older people and people who live in neighbourhoods well serviced by public transport and earn higher incomes. This signifies exclusion based on gender, age, geography and social class. On the other hand, the same 13-minute trip could cost as little as £5.70 in an UberX. and could be cheaper in an UberPOOL. This signifies inclusion and accessibility to more members of the public. This is consistent with Darbéra’s finding that the taxis most used by the poorest Londoners, women and youth are minicabs. This is because the rates for minicabs are very diverse, but they are on average much lower than the regulated fares of the black cabs (Darbéra, 2010). Uber taxis also signify choice, freedom and variety because they offer a wider range of cars and gives the consumer the choice to choose between cost and comfort. They can choose between UberPOOL which offers the cheapest prices and more premium and expensive services such as UberLUX.

Another signifier of exclusion is black cabs exclusive use of bus lanes. According to Transport for London (TfL), bus lanes are reserved for certain vehicles and “increase journey time reliability and encourage the use of sustainable transport such as public transport” (TfL). Black cabs are the only taxis allowed to use bus lanes during the hours of operation, other forms of taxis (including Uber) are excluded from this privilege. This signifies that black cabs hold a higher, more superior status than the other taxi services in London, further conveying the message of its exclusivity. TfL stated that the reason why black cabs are allowed to use bus lanes is because they are unique in being able to “ply for hire” and it is easier for taxi drivers to be spotted and pick up passengers when using the lanes. However, this might just be a political excuse because it is counterintuitive to allow black cabs stop to pick passengers which may disrupt traffic flow while also claiming that rational behind bus lanes is to ease traffic flow.  Additionally, just because the privilege might make their jobs easier does not mean that they should have it. For example, all taxis would benefit from using bus lanes to pick passengers in central areas but this does not justify giving them that right. This signifies a strong attempt to distinguish black cabs from other forms of transport which invokes the idea of black cabs being a more integral, important and favoured part of London transport than other taxis.

Black cabs and Uber also reflect divisions within the labour market. The black cab signifies exclusion due to the high barriers to entry of the profession. Prospective drivers need to earn a taxi badge which requires them to master The Knowledge – one of the hardest tests in the world with a dropout rate of 70 percent. Candidates spend up to four years learning their way around 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, and then must pass a final examination (Dudley, 2017). The process is “restrictive, inflexible to demand, closed and secretive” (Skok and Tissut, 2003), signifying hard work, merit and its exclusivity. Black cab drivers usually boast about the fact that they do not need a navigation system because they have memorised the routes around London. Indeed, psychological studies which studied the brains of black taxi drivers found increased grey matter in their hippocampus’. The study concluded that their brains adapt in response to environmental stimulations, in this case, the Knowledge test (Maguire et al. 2000). This promotes ideas of superiority, mastery and skill.  However, in reality, the test might not be as respectable as it seems. Skok and Tissut argue that the test needs to be reformed in order to remain relevant today. Their argument is convincing considering the fact that in 2015, one of the main training schools, the Knowledge Point College, announced its closure, blaming reduction in demand due to competition from Uber and London’s high property prices (Dudley, 2017).

Uber signifies a move away from the exclusionary model, its main aim being to make the industry more accessible and reliable. Uber therefore signifies a more flexible way of working which allows for people to be drivers at their own convenience. A recent Uber advert in the US promoted the ease with which Uber drivers can go from working (regular job), to earning (driving Uber) to “chilling”. Likewise, a 2016 survey suggested that more than half of Uber’s London drivers made money through other jobs, and that Uber was not the biggest source of pay for one in five drivers. This is consistent with the wider trend in the labour market towards “multiple forms of employment commonly known as the gig economy” (Dudley, 2017). Uber also signifies accessibility because of its low barriers to entry. Prospective drivers are only required to register online, apply for a private hire licence (which they can be helped with through Uber Ignition) and register an Uber approved vehicle. Unlike the black cab entry requirements, Uber’s requirements echo inclusion, accessibility and practicality. The effect of this is that Uber is seen as a more accessible profession and prospective drivers are more likely to sign up to be Uber drivers than they are to be black cab drivers because it takes less time and has fewer barriers to entry.

 

However, Uber does not only signify positive, innovative change. The recent scandals that have plagued the company mean that Uber now also signifies the disadvantages of technological advances. For example, Uber signifies the exploitation of drivers, unsafe conditions and a disregard for regulation. As Speta notes, this is particularly important because taxis have long been a regulated system (Speta, 2016). There have also been concerns that Uber pays drivers barely over minimum wage which highlights the disadvantages of its pricing strategy. Uber signifies cost-effectiveness but this may be interpreted as good or bad depending on which side the observer is on, supporting Halls’ concept of the active bystander. It is good for the consumers because they pay less, but it is bad for the drivers because they earn less. As Liss argues, one of the byproducts of Uber is the degradation of working class jobs that generate a living wage. As she argues, this is because treating Uber drivers as self-employed allows Uber to minimise labour costs and subvert national employment law by not offering basic requirements such as holiday and sick pay. According to her, this is a degradation of a profession which she claims used to provide workers with a substantial living. Additionally, although Uber signifies freedom, choice and flexibility, it can be argued that these ideas are a façade. Although drivers are “self-employed” and do not have to work set hours, Uber uses psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work (Scheiber, 2017). For example, Uber adopts techniques like showing drivers areas of high demand and reminding them of their earning goal to incentivise them to drive more. This suggests that although the decision to work is 100 percent theirs, there are underlying pressures which coerce them to work. This means that from a Kantian perspective, the drivers are not really free to work whenever they want.

 

In addition to this, the rape allegations and sex scandals signify that Uber is unsafe and could have the effect of deterring potential users away. This can be linked to the underlying issue of the inadequacy of the background checks done on Uber drivers. Indeed, safety is one of TfL’s major concerns about the company and is one of the factors it uses to distinguish Uber from black cabs. However, just because it signifies a lack of safety does not mean this is actually the case. As Feeney argues, the perception that Uber’s are more dangerous than regular taxis is unsupported by empirical evidence (Feeney, 2015). He argues that although Uber drivers commit crimes, so do traditional taxi drivers and suggests that the focus should be shifted from the crime committed to the disciplinary action taken thereafter. Consequently, the fact that Uber drivers are sanctioned by their accounts being deactivated would mean that Ubers are safe. However, it is questionable how effective the threat of virtual disbarment from the app might be as drivers pretty much work for an “invisible employer”. Arguably, a disbarment from a traditional taxi company still carries more weight. Perhaps, the threats posed to passengers by Uber might not be greater than traditional taxis but are of a novel sort which the taxi industry previously did not have to mitigate. This might explain why crime committed by Uber drivers are overrepresented and have more of a damaging impact in the news.

 

Black cabs also signify negative ideas about discrimination and intolerance. There have been several complaints about Uber drivers being the victims of racial and verbal attacks from taxi drivers. This can be linked back to the fact that they come from different demographics and ethnic groups. As a result, to certain groups, the black cab also signifies racial intolerance. This could also be an indicator of the wider conflict between immigrants and nationals for jobs. In Britain, as in the rest of the world there has been a rise in nationalist attitudes. The struggle between the black cab and the Uber might signify the struggle between nationalist ideas of restricting jobs for nationals and the force of globalisation which depicts immigrants as global citizens.  This is plausible given the demographic make-up to the two groups. Most black cab drivers are white British with 14,685 out of the 21,355 black cabs drivers in London coming from that ethnicity (TfL, 2017). This is disproportionate given that White British people only make up 45% of the London population (Easton, 2013). In contrast, ethnic minorities make up the majority of private hire vehicles which include mini cab drivers and Uber drivers – out of the 117857 private hire drivers in London, only 7097 are White British (TfL, 2017). The figures are disproportionate as there are over five times as many private hire drivers as there are black cab drivers. These figures signify several things. Firstly, it suggests that the tension between Uber and black cabs might be one based on ethnicity. Secondly, it reinforces the idea of the exclusivity of the black cab profession and thirdly, it signifies that Uber and black cabs represent different cultures. The fact that black cab drivers are mainly White British implies that black cab drivers might be able to identify with London’s traditional past because of the black cabs long history in London. On the other hand, there is “a link between Uber and migrant labour” (Makelane & Mathekga, 2017). Uber drivers are mostly immigrants who might not have such a strong historical link to London. They represent the other side of London – the side of possibility, globalisation and diversity. These two objects signify two contrasting views about London and are therefore not easily reconcilable.

 

As Stuart Hall argues, objects are signs which construct and communicate meaning and ideas. This essay has undertaken a semiotic analysis to evaluate how Uber and black cabs act as signifiers, transmitting meanings and ideas. This essay has argued that black cabs signify tradition, exclusion and quality. While Uber taxis signify innovation, inclusion and of recent, low levels of regulation which threatens to disrupt traditional means of transport. A semiotic analysis reveals that although these objects or signs do not have clear meanings in themselves, they convey meanings different meanings and ideas about London, the taxi industry and the people who use these objects. A semiotic analysis reveals that in the conflict between Uber and black cabs there is a delicate balance to be struck between encouraging innovation and services that apparently have wide public support (Uber), with sensitivity to the interests of established operators (black cabs), and to the provision of rules that provide fair competition.

 

 

Mirabel Anosike


 

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