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FURTHER COVID REFLECTIONS


Once again we welcome a contribution from Ian Millership from unmet demand survey organisation LVSA. Ian has fielded many queries over the past few weeks in respect of the current state of the industry, in particular looking at facts and figures in respect of the complexion of the industry dur- ing these unprecedented times – and beyond.


IS THIS THE REAL LIFE, IS THIS JUST FANTASY?


So went the words of Bohemian Rhapsody. Often sung but probably never more true than now. But, unlike the song that goes on to say “caught in a landslide, no escape from reality”, perhaps there is some escape. The key is knowledge. There was a point mid-summer when there was a hope the virus might not resurge [Eat Out to Help Out, etc…] However, the virus has returned with some vengeance. Initially, the 22:00 hours curfew was introduced. This has been followed by varying degrees of additional measures. As far as business is concerned, the start of the land- slide, perhaps?


In last month’s article we outlined some of the emerging changes and unforeseen and potentially negative developments and most certainly unintended consequences that needed to be quickly understood and if possible acted upon to ensure the best poten- tial future for both the public and the trade. Since then we have almost completed two full demand surveys and have talked with industry stakeholders and are hearing their concerns and helping them add substance to their views.


REAL INFORMATION FROM THE GROUND


Our two surveys have found, as expected, that demand measured at ranks has clearly reduced. This was especially so at railway station ranks.


In one licensing authority, the decline in observed hires followed two consecutive surveys which indicated significant growth in demand. One may expect that reduced demand would mean improved public service as there would be fewer passengers seeking to hire the same number of vehicles.


However, the level of supply has also changed. The most notable change has been in the number of drivers of licensed vehicles. It appears that the drivers most likely to have left the trade, either permanently or temporarily, are those drivers who rent vehicles. Drivers who rent a hackney carriage or private hire vehicle from the owner, either as a second driver or as the sole driver, have less of an ongoing commitment than vehicle owners. In some cases, the vehicle owner/drivers feel that they need to work longer hours. So in some cases, during periods when a second driver would normally work the vehicle, during these times of reduced demand the owner needs to work longer hours, leaving no oppor- tunity for a second driver.


Some drivers lease a vehicle from a leasing company and license that leased vehicle. Increasingly, they have been handing back the keys to their vehicles and leaving the trade, resulting in a reduc- tion in both drivers and vehicles.


Some of the drivers who have left the trade are still technically licensed drivers, having up to three years of their hackney or private hire driver license left to run before renewal. Unless a driv-


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er takes action to cancel their licence, their licences are still valid, even if they are not currently using them to drive for hire or reward. Therefore, the extent to which drivers have left the trade is largely masked in the licensing statistics.


Some drivers have pursued other sources of income, through other business interests, other opportunities in the gig economy or taking up hourly paid or salaried employment.


We have heard from licensing officers that where people can, some are either putting vehicles off the road or not renewing vehicle licences where they have that option. Some owner/drivers are choosing to retire now, either having worked longer than they planned, or by thinking now is the time to move on. Others are clearly starting to think longer term what to do next given the situation is clearly a much longer haul than most people initially hoped might be the case.


It needs to be remembered that not only aare there Covid-19 impacts are out there, but there are also challenges associated with vehicle emissions policies as well as changes arising from authori- ties combining and a myriad of other potential policy changes.


CAN WE KNOW AND UNDERSTAND MORE?


Absolutely, yes. The key is understanding how the industry in an area is structured to identify where the potential impacts will occur. For example, matching up owners, drivers and operators easily demonstrates the level of owner/drivers, multi-owners and those wishing to rent. Driver age profiles can easily be obtained, and vehicle styles and ages considered to identify the impact of future policies such as air quality improvement measures or vehicle age limitation policies.


While people are choosing to leave, it is important to capture and understand their reasons. Such information could be used to see how levels of service can be maintained in the future. Indeed, even just knowing how many drivers and vehicles are actually providing hire services to the travelling public is valuable informa- tion that is often currently not available.


One thing which has become clear recently is that, with the fluctuations in demand and provision, the number of drivers and licensed vehicles on the licensing registers cannot be relied upon as a true reflection of actual levels of provision.


THE IMPORTANCE OF DRIVERS


The drop in driver numbers has emphasised the importance of driver numbers in assessing the capacity of licensed vehicle provision. Licensed vehicle studies have often made significant reference to comparative ratios of licensed vehicles to population. This is indeed a useful comparative statistic in some instances, but should not be overly relied upon when evaluating whether there is sufficient availability to provide a good quality level of service to the public.


In many towns and cities, railway station taxi ranks carry a signif- icant proportion of demand from ranks in these licensing areas. Some station rank demand is from commuters, travelling home. However, the majority of demand at railway station ranks is from visitors, who do not feature in the population statistics for the licensing authority area. Therefore, they do not feature in the ratio of hackney carriages to population.


NOVEMBER 2020


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