‘The trade has gone’: How the pandemic killed the taxi industry

We’ve all needed a taxi at some point in our lives – to get home after a night on the town, to take an elderly relative to an appointment, to pick the kids up from school, or maybe to take us to the airport.

The cabbie has worked for years to fulfill a very important role for us – to get us from A to B, to ensure people who can’t drive have a means of transport and, more often than not, to make sure the vulnerable and elderly aren’t left behind.

They don’t just make sure we get to places but they also make sure we get there safely.

But throughout the last six months their trade has arguably been hit with one of the toughest blows seen in the public transport sector as the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded.

A few weeks ago I visited some pubs in Rhondda Cynon Taf when the first curfew was introduced on pubs in the area.

As well as being shocked to see just how empty the venues were I was also shocked to see how silent the taxi rank in Pontypridd town centre was on what would normally be quite a busy Friday night.

Several cars were queuing on the rank just waiting, hoping, for someone to need a ride home.

One driver said a lot of drivers had probably made a fiver by 10pm.

It made me think how the industry was being affected by the pandemic as I saw the street that would usually be lined with people desperate for a lift home dwindle to an eerie quiet. And it’s a vignette that is familiar to taxi drivers around Wales.

Jason Bowkett, 47, has been a taxi driver in Pontypridd for 27 years but he said the industry has been severely hit as a consequence of the pandemic.

He said: “My main issues are that, although we are in a lockdown area, the councils and government of Wales are telling people not to use public transport.

“Although we are in a lockdown area you can still go out in the local area – you can go to the shops and use public transport.

“It’s coming across that they shouldn’t be using us but they can.

“We are trying to build our businesses back up and then we are being told people shouldn’t use public transport.

“It’s killing a lot of the taxi trade. The taxi trade has gone.

“I have been out on a Saturday night and made just £40 as a result of everything that’s going on.”

Pontypridd taxi rank pictured on the first Friday after a curfew on pubs was in imposed in RCT
Pontypridd taxi rank pictured on the first Friday after a curfew on pubs was in imposed in RCT
(Image: Richard Swingler)

Jason said the drivers in the area have to buy their own personal protective equipment (PPE), including screens if they choose to have one, which he said cost between £300 and £400. On top of everything else it all adds up.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” he added. “I’m not having a go at anybody and I’m not disputing anything.

“We still have families to feed.

“This will go on for five to 10 years – the taxi trade will suffer. I have been in this trade a long time and I have seen it dwindle.

“We are coming to work a day of 12 hours for £60 or £70 – before we would do 12 hours and be up on £200.

“I think with the 10pm curfew it’s gotten worse.”

Jason said he works hard to ensure his vehicle is as clean as possible for customers.

He explained everything gets disinfected after each customer – the seats, the seat belts, and all the other touch points.

But, despite this, he still thinks there is a fear around using public transport.

Taxis in Cardiff city centre
(Image: Rob Browne/WalesOnline)

Jason added: “The night-time economy is gone – there is no night-time economy. On a Saturday night everyone is parked up just sitting there.

“You’d usually be working until 2.30am and now, by 8pm, they are all gone and there’s nothing there.

“There are a few taxi drivers who have packed it in. They have gone to work delivering for supermarkets and Amazon – a lot of drivers right around the country.

“The amount of people packing up driving is unbelievable.”

A similar picture is painted in Cardiff city centre where taxi ranks remain pretty quiet.

We visited the area on Monday afternoon around lunchtime where you’d normally expect to see a lot of hustle and bustle from city workers but, with many office workers still working from home, the streets, and shops, were largely deserted.

Around five taxis were parked up outside House of Fraser in St Mary Street just hoping some customers would need a ride home.

Fayaz Malik
Fayaz Malik
(Image: Rob Browne/WalesOnline)

Fayaz Malik, 48, was the first driver who spoke about the issues they have been facing in the taxi trade in the capital.

He said the first big blow to them came when the bus station was demolished and they lost the rank near Central station.

Speaking about the old site Fayaz, who has been a taxi driver for around 10 years, said: “It was ideal. They destroyed it.

“It has gotten very quiet. This virus will continue on all through the year probably.

“People don’t want to come out. The pubs are struggling. I think people will lose their jobs and livelihoods from this pandemic. It’s not going to be easy. The more we go forward the darker days are going to come for people. We have to be strong and get through this.”

Fayaz said people 'don't want to come out'
Fayaz said people ‘don’t want to come out’
(Image: Rob Browne/WalesOnline)

As he looked at the three other drivers parked up in front of him he started talking about how long they can just sit there hoping someone comes in need of a taxi.

The waits between fares over the past few months have been tedious for some of them.

Fayaz added: “I’ve been waiting here for about two and a half to three hours. Usually I would only wait for 15 to 20 minutes but the customers have been disappearing.

“It’s been quiet because people have been living in fear.

“It’s not a laughing matter, it’s not a joking matter.”

As for Malik Farooq, 62, he’s only been back in work for a little more than a week.

After working in the trade for around 20 years he took some time off at the start of lockdown due to the restrictions and impacts on business.

He was parked up on his own at a rank not far from Cardiff Castle. Very few people passed him by as he waited in the cab.

It has been very quiet at the ranks in Cardiff city centre
It has been very quiet at the ranks in Cardiff city centre
(Image: Rob Browne/WalesOnline)
(Image: Rob Browne/WalesOnline)

“I only started back last week,” said Malik. “I stopped during lockdown in March. I’m thinking of packing in – it’s not worth it.

“I was just sitting here for about three and a half hours yesterday afternoon. There aren’t any people around. I just sit back watching.”

Malik thinks other things have also affected the trade. He said one of the biggest hits drivers in the city have seen over the last few years is the launch of Uber.

Most drivers are experiencing the same things – the quiet days and lack of business with the city centre being so quiet.

“Uber is doing well because they are picking people up from houses but not many people come into town,” he added.

“I think it will be a long-term problem. It hit taxi drivers when Uber started a few years ago and now this pandemic so I don’t know what will happen.

“At the moment, the way it’s looking, it’s getting worse financially. I don’t know how it will pick back up.”

Firas Mahmoud
Firas Mahmoud
(Image: Rob Browne/WalesOnline)

Not too far away, in Greyfriars Road, around five more cabbies could be seen parked up in another rank.

One of them was Firas Mahmoud, 52, who has been in the trade since 2013. He too stopped working for a period when lockdown measures came into place before finally returning to the rank in July.

Firas said: “Business is weak – it’s weak. Sometimes I work four hours but I only take one fare.”

Firas said people simply aren’t coming out as much as they used to. “It’s probably because they are staying home or to keep money,” he said.

“People don’t feel safe to come out or go anywhere because of the news.

“We work with older people but they don’t come and they are right because they don’t go outside.

“It’s difficult and it’s dangerous.”

Find out just how much the full national lockdown changed things where you live:

As we chat to Firas he points at a silver car pulling up outside the Hilton Hotel.

He says the car is a private hire vehicle and is thought to have come from Newport to pick people up and take them to their desired locations.

This, he said, doesn’t help their business.

“We are in a lockdown – how are they coming from Newport? How are they coming here?”

Safir Hussain
Safir Hussain
(Image: Rob Browne/WalesOnline)

Meanwhile, in Churchill Way, another six taxis were pulled up waiting for trade.

For Safir Hussain, 65, who has been in the business for around 20 years, he thinks the last few months have affected the trade in a “very bad way”.

Safir said: “Most of the taxi drivers they work voluntarily because we do care about the public.

“Believe you me we are not being rewarded and, as you can see, there is no traffic around.

“We are here voluntarily to help on the frontline because we know there are a lot of old people in the city.

“They have no relatives or family and they come for shopping or to go to the dentist or to the doctors.

“The majority is for the older people but there is no work and we are not being rewarded for it.”

When asked how business compares to this time last year Safir said it’s down “around 80%”. He added drivers have had some help from the government but it’s still been a tough time for them.

“I’m coming to my age where I’m going to retire,” he added.

“But I feel sorry for the young people – they have to change their profession because it’s affecting us really badly overall.”

When you walk around Cardiff city centre it’s clear to see the taxi trade is struggling.

Drivers are sitting at ranks parked up for hours, the streets are close to empty, and it’s simply nowhere near the same place it was at the start of the year.

Like many other businesses – the shops, the pubs, the restaurants – the taxi trade is suffering as a result of so few people coming to visit the city centre as a result of the pandemic and, more recently, the local lockdown restrictions have influenced this to an even greater extent.

But what was also clear to see is that many of them are doing all they can to ensure their vehicles are safe.

The drivers are wearing masks, some have spares in case anyone comes without one, and vehicles are being cleaned.

Some are waiting for hours in cars, with the fear of making little money, just to ensure people can get around – particularly the elderly and vulnerable.

The fight goes on to continue to serve the public, to feed their families, and to keep things ticking over as they pray things will somehow get better.

We may be encouraged to stay at home for a little while longer but there will come a time when we all need a cabbie again.

It’s important their efforts throughout the pandemic don’t get forgotten.

WalesOnline – Cardiff