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London Olympics: A Cabbie's View

Jul 24, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 10:30 am



It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Three days remain before the Olympic Games. They're billed as the world's greatest sporting event. They're in London. So why aren't the British happy? The British have been grumbling so much about the games that the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has told them all to stop whining and, in his words, put a sock in it. Yet still the protests and complaints continue. Let's take a ride across London with NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: London's Tower Bridge is ready for the Olympic Games. Five giant brightly colored Olympic rings hang majestically between its neo-gothic turrets, visible for miles around. This world-famous landmark on the River Thames is being used as a billboard for promoting the games. On the bridge itself, though, there's commotion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) taxis...

REEVES: A long line of traditional black London cabs inches slowly across the bridge, their drivers venting their anger with decibels.


REEVES: These cabbies are protesting a network of special traffic lanes created for the games. The lanes are for the exclusive use of Olympic athletes, officials, journalists and dignitaries to make it easier for them to move around this heavily congested city. Taxis are not allowed in most of them, and that's the problem, says Mick Bailey, an official with one of London's taxi unions.

MICK BAILEY: There's many parts of the route that we can't stop on the left, so we can't pick up on the left, we can't set down on the left. We can't turn right in many places. We can't access many parts of London, so it's just going to prevent us from doing our job and going about our legitimate business.

REEVES: These cabbies are not the only Londoners with a big grievance right now. London has very mixed feelings about these games. People are angry over bungled security arrangements that compelled the government to call in thousands of extra troops at the eleventh hour. Some fear the games will be disrupted by labor protests by border staff and rail workers. Some gripe about the difficulty of getting tickets. Everyone's fretting about the weather. Complaints are flying so thick and fast that the international media's begun accusing the British of turning grumbling into an Olympic sport.

Tony Crothers chairs the London Cabbies Group - organizers of that Tower Bridge protest.

TONY CROTHERS: This is the start of the first games lane. There are over 60 miles worth. Most of them are in central areas.

REEVES: As he drives through the city, Crothers points out the offending Olympics lanes. In some areas these are causing major hold-ups. Crothers says it doesn't take much to bring the capital to a stand-still.

CROTHERS: London is living on an edge here. It's living on a knife edge. The road system, the underground system, the train system. Any single sort of problem will push it over that edge, and as we've seen on a number of occasions, London can just grind to a halt, you know, for the simplest of reasons.

REEVES: Crothers has been driving the streets of London for years.

CROTHERS: It's the best job in the world. You know, I couldn't work in an office, stuck inside an office all day. This is my office, this taxi.

REEVES: London cabbies are a special breed.

CROTHERS: We like to talk. We love meeting our passengers. We've all got opinions. If you put 10 cab drivers in a room, you'll get eleven opinions.

REEVES: Crothers has his own opinion about why so many Londoners are not very keen on the Olympics. He feels the games have been dominated by powerful international corporations and rich outsiders.

CROTHERS: It seems like they've hijacked our country to have their party. And we're paying for it. Londoners are paying for this.

REEVES: Crothers says there's also another reason his city has such mixed feelings about the Olympics.

CROTHERS: To be honest with you, they dub it as the greatest show on Earth. Now, this is - we live in a footballing nation. If it was the World Cup of soccer, then yeah, you know, we'd all be trying our hardest to get tickets. Athletics and, you know, basically it's a glorified sports day, running and jumping. Other than the big names, like your Usain Bolts and people like that, I don't think I could really name you too many of our athletes.


REEVES: Back on Tower Bridge, Crothers' fellow cabbies are in full voice.


REEVES: Suddenly a man in a Panama hat leaps onto the bridge railings and swan-dives into the Thames, into the path of a pleasure cruiser packed with tourists. There's confusion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Somebody's jumped.

REEVES: A group of American students is nearby, including Catherine Smallman, who saw it happen.

CATHERINE SMALLMAN: He just jumped off and then he was in the water. And then he was like - I don't know what he said, but I heard him say, oh, I'm a taxi driver, and then he just swam away.

REEVES: The man was picked up by a police patrol boat. You'd think these holdups and protests and complaints would upset visitors, who've traveled from afar to London for the games. But Smallman, who's from New York, has a certain amount of sympathy for grumbling Londoners.

SMALLMAN: I think it's definitely well-founded because of like their lack of access to the roads. We already had a problem this morning trying to get to school because of all the lanes being like held up because of(ph) the Olympics.

REEVES: What? You were held up on the road, were you?

SMALLMAN: Well, yeah, we had to wait a really long time for a bus, and when it came, it just like - we had to get off, it wasn't getting anywhere.

REEVES: London is not for the fainthearted at the best of times. During the Olympics, it'll likely be tough going. Yet Smallman and her friends have no regrets.

Are you sorry you came?

SMALLMAN: No, absolutely not, never.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We love it here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, no way.


REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.