EPPING: Tony Georgiou sighed as he stood in front of a field full of parked taxis, admitting that he had lost count of the number of taxis present.
Many London taxi drivers hire their instantly recognizable black cabs from fleet companies such as GB Taxi Services, of which Georgiou is one of the owners.
But with the streets of London emptied by the coronavirus lockdown, many drivers are unable to continue paying for their vehicles and are returning them en masse.
“There are probably around 150-200 vehicles here that we had to get off the road,” said Georgiou, whose company has parked its vehicles in Epping in the northeast of the capital. “I lost count.”
Famous the world over, the UK capital’s bulbous black taxis were originally designed to accommodate a passenger in a top hat.
To get a license, drivers must pass a wickedly difficult exam called “The Knowledge,” which tests their recall of streets, routes and landmarks only from memory.
But fields full of taxis are now a mass phenomenon, said Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Association of Licensed Taxi Drivers (LTDA).
“It’s happening everywhere, all around the M25 there are fields with taxis like that,” McNamara said, referring to the main orbital motorway around London.
He called the situation “totally and totally unprecedented” and “already impossible to survive for some”.
Georgiou said around 50 of the parked vehicles have already been targeted by thieves who have removed catalytic converters and diesel particulate filters which will cost around £ 120,000 ($ 160,000) to replace.
“I couldn’t tell you if we’re confident we’ll overcome this at this time. It’s a struggle, ”he said of his business, which has been in existence for over 16 years.
Currently, only 20% of taxis are operating, McNamara said, basing the assessment on the association’s vehicle count and official Heathrow airport figures.
The LTDA has around 11,000 members out of a total of around 20,000 black cab drivers in the city.
McNamara now wants taxi drivers to get more financial support from the government, arguing that they recently invested in expensive electric taxis and electronic payment machines. Covid is “without a doubt the main factor” in the decline in the number of taxis, he said.
Uber and other ridesharing apps are “absolutely not” a factor, he added, arguing that their prices have soared and drivers are unpredictable.
Taxi drivers still on the road can earn 20% of their usual income, which can range from £ 15,000 to £ 80,000 per year.
“We have lost between 5,000 and 6,000 vehicles since June,” he said.
Some drivers have turned to deliveries for supermarkets but the “vast majority” are not working, he added.
According to official figures from Transport for London (TfL), the number of licensed black taxis fell from more than 19,000 on March 1 of this year to just under 15,000 on November 8.
A spokesperson for TfL said it had advised drivers how to stay safe and mentally healthy during the pandemic and that they had received grants to help them purchase low-emission vehicles.
The drivers “are asking for more support from the government” than from TfL, he said. A taxi driver, Sam Houston, was waiting in a line at Heathrow to get a fare.
With limited air travel, hitting tourism, he said the wait could be 20-24 hours instead of the normal three.
The 45-year-old has been a taxi driver for eight years and says under normal circumstances it’s “good to live”.
But the COVID-19 period is “the most difficult time I have ever known,” he said.
“The feeling that this is a semi-permanent change in the economy, a lot of people find that incredibly scary.”
While some taxi drivers have called for self-employed leave pay from the government, many have not qualified, he said, calling for “targeted support for our industry from local and national governments” .
McNamara said taxi drivers should be chosen for help, in much the same way the government has helped restaurants try to bounce back from their forced closure.
“We have been hit as hard, if not harder, than the hotel industry,” he said.