Page last updated at 11:43 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 12:43 UK

Communal cabbing

People pile onto a car in Chad
In some countries, sharing is essential

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Londoners hit by a 48-hour Tube strike are being encouraged to taxi-share to keep the city moving. It's an idea that makes sense on any day of the year - but can the notoriously reticent British really take it to heart?

If Waterloo station is a hive of frenzied activity most weekday mornings, at rush hour on Wednesday it's full to bursting point.

We're not particularly good at talking to each other as strangers generally
Jo Bryant

Outside this London rail terminus three taxi marshals in bright yellow vests are handing coloured cards to passengers joining a steadily growing queue.

Welcome to taxi-sharing, British style.

A two-day strike by Underground drivers has prompted this experiment in communal cab travel.

"I'm happy to share... it's a great idea," says accountant Peter Hughes, who is late for a meeting in the City of London. "But I'm running late so I will go on my own. I want it to be as quick and efficient as possible".

Cheaper fares

Others though are more willing to give it a go. The black cabs are taking up to five passengers per trip - compared with the average of 1.5 - and the more efficient use of capacity means more efficient queues.

The scheme - from 0800 to 1030 - is also running at London's other major rail termini on both strike days.

Poster of taxi-sharing zones
Commuters pick up a destination zone ticket from a taxi share marshal
Central London divided into seven zones (see map, above), each with a corresponding flat fare per passenger
Marshal shows commuter to taxi, which they share with four other passengers
As each passenger is dropped off, they pay a flat fare, stated on their ticket

The system promises fares per head of around a third of the metered price, not to mention less noise, disruption, congestion and pollution.

Even the cabbies themselves will gain, according to Transport for London (TfL), because the total charge per journey will be higher once the individual fares are added together. And they'll still be busy.

But there's a strange thing. People seem prepared to abide by organised taxi-sharing on a day of crisis, but left to their own devices on a normal day they seem to have qualms.

You can see it every time you step off a plane or a train and meander to a busy taxi rank. No matter how busy the queue, how long the wait, or how expensive the taxis, you will see single people getting into five-seat taxis and heading off on their own.

Many of those stuck in such a queue may have idly thought how good it would be if people could just co-ordinate. If the businessman, the two maiden aunts, the snotty schoolchild and the dreadlocked traveller are all going to the Comfort Inn in the city centre, why not all go together?

So, when there isn't a transport strike, what's stopping them?

Simon Fanshawe, author of The Done Thing, a book about modern manners, says the idea will only be embraced outside times of crisis if there are authority figures organising it.

"We're emotionally stunted as a country, we're hopelessly buttoned up and get embarrassed if people talk to us half the time," he says. "There is a very peculiar shyness among the British middle class, I mean if you catch someone's eye on a Tube, people blush.

Discomfort of strangers

"People like rules of engagement, when there aren't rules... we don't know what to do."

Without being told to share by someone in charge, many people will revert to a natural setting of not feeling entirely comfortable.

Jean Pitt
I've shared in Spain, and Crete before… [But here] it's about PC Britishness - we're quite reserved. And it's the fear of someone saying 'no'
Jean Pitt, Teddington, Middlesex

Jo Bryant, etiquette adviser at Debrett's, says the value people put on their privacy should not be underestimated.

"Because taxis are that bit more expensive, people see it as almost paying for the privilege of someone taking you from A to B without having to interact with other people like on a bus or train," she says.

"We're not particularly good at talking to each other as strangers generally, and some people want peace and quiet and to mind their own business, especially in such an enclosed space.

"Because we're that bit more reserved, it [sharing] can be... quite a shock to the system."

There are taxi-sharing schemes in parts of the UK, but they're not the norm.

Shared cabs run at London's Paddington and Euston stations but only for two hours each at morning rush hour.

People have informally shared hackney carriages for decades, but the only other organised schemes in London are at the Wimbledon tennis championships and after royal garden parties at Buckingham Palace.

Blackpool runs a service from its promenade, parts of Bristol are covered if journeys are booked in advance, and the Fordingbridge area of New Forest in Hampshire has a scheme. There are also schemes running out of several airports, including Belfast and Inverness.

Blitz spirit

Elsewhere in the UK, particularly in rural areas poorly served by local transport, the idea of taxi sharing can be a fact of life.

Black cabs
Sometimes black cabs are a bit scarcer than this

Of course, the valuing of space that might preclude sharing is not necessarily a recent thing, says cultural historian Dr Joe Moran.

"It's recognised that people pay a premium to have space. The first class carriage of a train is not that different to other carriages, you're really paying for the space."

British reserve may explain people's reluctance to share in ordinary circumstances, he suggests.

But he adds: "Often when there are strikes, it's like a bit of a wartime situation, an extraordinary situation, so people shake off their reticence."

Bill Munro, a London cabbie for 37 years who has written a history of taxis, says there was more willingness to share cabs during the war because there was a stronger sense of community, but it always depended on people's incomes.

If you've got the money, he suggests, many want a situation which is like "having your own private limousine for 10 minutes".

But of course travel to many places in the world and taxi-sharing is the norm, for both economic and cultural reasons.

In New York this autumn, 1,000 new "share cabs" will take to the streets with their destinations clearly displayed, allowing passengers heading in the same direction to hail them.

Organisers claim everyone will get a 50% fare discount as long as there is more than one passenger.

And go to Greece and you will have to get used to taxi-sharing. Drivers will stop to pick up additional passengers who shout out where they're going.

In the UK, that might seem a bit forward.

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