Magazine article The Spectator

A Fare Thing

Magazine article The Spectator

A Fare Thing

Article excerpt

Every experienced journalist knows that there are two sources of information about obscure and distant countries: the taxi-drivers who take him from the airport to the country's one luxury hotel, and the journalists who are already sitting at the bar of that hotel. Of the two sources, the taxi-drivers are incomparably the more reliable, intelligent and well informed.

Taxi-drivers have a profound knowledge of human nature: besides the opportunity inherent in their job for meeting every class and condition of human being, a keen interest in human nature is a matter of survival for them, and necessity is the mother of all close observation. The universal political conservatism of taxi-drivers is thus not the consequence of petit-bourgeois social prejudice, as haughty radicals like to pretend, but of intelligence reflecting upon experience. It is, indeed, a mere prejudice that taxi-drivers are prejudiced.

My impression that taxi-drivers are the cream of humanity has been strengthened by my acquaintance with them in my own city. Not only are they cheerful, polite, obliging, honest, hardworking and knowledgeable, but they are also extremely well organised. By the exercise of their own intelligence, they have adopted the latest technology to improve their service, increase their efficiency, and raise their income. They are a beacon of light in Britain's sea of gloom.

Members of the association into which they have formed themselves are enthusiastic not only about the technology they have adopted, but - something unheard of in the British public service - also about their management too. They accede to the association by buying one share, and one share only, and thereby contract themselves, under pain of a fine, to attend the annual general meeting at which the three officers - a chairman, a secretary and a treasurer - are elected. These three are paid slightly, but only slightly, more than a driver can expect to earn in a year; and if any of them fails to perform, he is soon voted down.

The drivers are careful to provide neither incentive nor opportunity for administrative hypertrophy, the disease of the age. This is because they would pay for any such hypertrophy directly from their pocket, as a kind of tax; and it is the universal experience of mankind that no man pays tax willingly, just as it is the universal experience of mankind that no man is reluctant to impose a tax on others. It is for this reason that attendance at the annual general meeting is deemed to be so important.

The technology that they have adopted by free vote (after some initial resistance by the older drivers) is a system of satellite guidance. When a customer calls for a taxi, his location is entered into a computer, and the satellite system automatically allocates the nearest free taxi to the customer. This not only maximises efficiency, saving the customer time and the taxi-driver fuel, but it also improves human relations among the taxi-drivers themselves. The reason for this rather surprising effect of technology was explained to me recently by a Sikh driver, who spoke of the system much as a young lover might speak of his beloved.

Under the old dispensation, when drivers were allocated jobs via a radio, there were grounds for permanent mistrust and even paranoia among the drivers. They suspected, for example, that the staff who manned the radios had their favourites, to whom they gave the juicy jobs (of course, this did not have to be true for paranoia to exist). Moreover, a job having been allocated to a particular driver over a radio to which all drivers listened, another driver might race to the customer ahead of the particular driver. …

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