Taxi for Mr Baker! Minister for Cycling attracts wrath of London's cabbies
"Light-hearted comment" causes taxi drivers' spokesman to suffer sense of humour failure and irony bypass
We have to say we’re warming to Transport Minister Norman Baker. Last week, he promised to raise the issue of the scrapping of the 20mph speed limit on Blackfriars Bridge with Transport for London, and now he’s under fire from the city’s black cab drivers after light-heartedly suggesting they might go slowly on purpose to try and rack up the fare. As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Appearing before the House of Commons Transport Committee, Mr Baker was making a point about the need for his department to dispense with unnecessary and outdated legislation. "I think there is an offence of furious driving which only applies to taxi drivers because they used to be Hackney Carriage drivers, from about 1847,” he said, by means of illustration.
It was his next comment however that raised the hackles of the taxi-driving community. "I must admit I have not seen any taxi drivers driving furiously; they drive rather slowly in my experience, to keep the clock ticking over."
As he later told the London Evening Standard, "It was a light-hearted comment which I think some people will see a grain of truth in," adding that traffic jams often made it difficult for taxis to travel faster. At speeds of below 10.4mph, the metered fare is based on time rather than distance.
That explanation came to late to prevent an indignant response from Steve McNamara, spokesman for the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association, which counts 10,000 London cabbies among its members.
In a remark apparently made without irony, Mr McNamara said: "Sometimes they say it's best to keep your mouth shut in case people think you are stupid rather than open it and confirm their belief.”
That’s a view that will doubtless be shared by anyone who has ever been subject to a driver’s unsolicited views while riding in a cab on immigration, the social security system, the return of capital punishment and, yes, cyclists.
Indignantly, he added: “It's not just scandalous, it's slanderous.”
While being spokesperson for a stereotypically outspoken section of the workforce is a role few cyclists would wish to trade with Mr McNamara, he himself made it clear that he wasn’t looking for a job swap with Mr Baker any time soon.
"I might only be a taxi driver but I'd be embarrassed to have to tell people, 'I'm the minister for cycling,'” he thundered.
“He will be riding everywhere in future because no cab driver will pick him up," he added – although given the congestion in Central London, that would mean that the Minister would most likely get to his destination quicker and more cheaply by having to use his bike.
Of course, we’re not suggesting that all of London’s cabbies are anti-cyclist. Far from it. On Wednesday, while sat in the Look Mum No Hands cycling café on Old Street, we were briefly transfixed by the sight of a female cyclist hailing a cab then loading her bike into the back with the driver’s approval before being whisked away.