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Taxi For Aqeel: Street Cars Boss

The Street Cars chief on why we'll never have to talk or carry money again

Written by . Published on February 17th 2014.


Taxi For Aqeel: Street Cars Boss
 

STILL ordering a taxi by phone? You ole’ dinosaur. Waving a cab down in the street? Mug’s game.

We've changed the taxi culture here. Before us the image was of a grubby taxi station and a woman holding a baby and smoking a fag behind a caged window. The taxis didn’t have seatbelts, the car smelled and the driver didn’t wash or speak English.

The merciless onward march of technology is changing just about every facet of our existence. In fact, the only thing we now do that doesn’t require a microchip of sorts involves Andrex - and the Japanese have even cobbled together a robot for that.

Now, using similar technology to that which allows a spotty teen in California to pilot a remote controlled drone and drop a niknak on to the head of a Turkmenistein shepherd from the Jupiter moon of Callisto, you can whip out your smartphone and within but a few clicks have a taxi zipping its way to the very spot at which you stand. You can pay via smart phone too.

Not only will you never have to carry money or ‘go via a cash-point mate’, but you’ll never have to speak to an actual human being ever again. Perverse for a smart phone don’t you think?

I blame Street Cars boss Aqeel Ashad and their remarkably handy app for bringing this terminal slide of civilisation to Manchester.

Still, when it’s this handy, who cares?

Streetcars gearing up for ParklifeStreetcars gearing up for Parklife

Aqeel, tell us about Street Cars?

It’s a family run business started by my Dad. He’s been a driver for 35 years. A friend of my Dad had an office space open up in the Gay Village. He snapped it up in July 2002. We started with two cars, now we have 450.

Quite an expansion…

It’s mainly been within the last four years. Last year alone we took on 120 drivers. We were lucky starting in the Village, we had all that work right on our doorstep. For us it’s how big can we get? We’re always looking to expand and go further. We never expected to have 450 cars, so why stop there?

Is this the only family business?

My Dad’s been into all sorts. Markets stalls, takeaways, electronics, a restaurant.

Any still going?

No (laughs). The restaurant actually did really well but once the health inspector had given us a small fine, that’s your reputation gone. We’ll stick to what we do best. Taxis. We're all here, me, my two brothers and my sister. It’s a real family operation.

Have you grown up here?

We’re all born and bred Mancunians. Originally from Cheetham Hill but now we’re based in Whitefield. My Dad came here in the 60s when he was nine. We know the city inside out. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Ever fancied yourself as a driver?

I haven’t, but my brother did it for awhile. Apparently once you get in it’s hard to leave. You set your own hours with us, come and go as you like. Sign on the machine, then sign off when you’re done. Simple. It’s so flexible that people find it hard to leave or go into other work. I didn’t want to get into that position.

Drivers rent equipment for £120 p/weekDrivers rent equipment for £120 p/week

So how does the driver/car/taxi firm relationship work?

The drivers all have their own cars. They pay for their own fuel and insurance. We just rent them all the equipment inside the car enabling them to pick up the jobs that we give them. Drivers are charged a weekly rent of £120.

Do all private hire firms have the same meter rates?

No. We can charge what we want. But we haven’t put our fares up in the last four years. Once that recession hit it wouldn’t have been fair on our customers.

Aqeel Ashad at HQAqeel Ashad at HQ

You claim to have changed MCR taxis. How?

We've changed the taxi culture here. Before us the image was of a grubby taxi station and a woman holding a baby and smoking a fag behind a caged window. The taxis didn’t have seatbelts, the car smelled and the driver didn’t wash or speak English. They didn't even have a meter. We've changed that.

We were the first to put a meter in every car. It's still not compulsory for private hire cars, but it is for Street Cars. And obviously we've been right on top of the technology...

How’s technology changed taxis?

We’ve always been ahead of the curve and that's why we've come on so much. Why watch to see what the competition are doing, they should be looking at us. That's our philosophy.

Our software partner, Autocab in Cheadle are the best at what they do. Not many people in Manchester know but they're the largest supplier of taxi booking and dispatch software in the world. They have 800 customers in the UK alone. And we get to trial things before they're rolled out. Stay ahead of the competition. 

So tell us about this Street Cars app.

It’s amazing. It’s completely changed the game. Open the app and it’ll show you on a surrounding map where the closest available taxis are to your position and how long they’ll take to get there. It can also use GPS so all you have to press is ‘pick me up from here’. You can even watch the taxi approaching you on the map. We’ve had thousands and thousands of downloads. We want everyone to have the app. It's free and this is how all taxis will be booked in the future. It’s really clever stuff.

The Street Cars appThe Street Cars app

What next? Can you better that?

Very soon you won’t even need money in your pocket to pay for the taxi. You’ll be able to book and pay through your phone. No more annoying trips to the cash-point for customer or driver. The app will even tell you who your driver is, what they look like and what they're driving. So it’s safer too.

We’re also starting to twin our app with other suppliers in different towns and cities. So if you’re away on a trip in another city you can still use our app. Ideally, all you’d ever need to book a taxi anywhere in the UK is our app.

Do Street Cars have a waiting list of drivers?

We’ve currently got around 20 waiting to work for us. Some drivers can’t handle our rules and regulations. But we don’t want them anyway. Most drivers want to work for us because of the people we service, the quality of our customers. We service 80% of the hotels and restaurants in town. We see ourselves as an extension of that particular hotel or restaurant. That's why they trust us.

How do you vet your drivers?

Street Cars uniformStreet Cars uniformThey have to take a knowledge test with the council but we also have our own tests and an interview. We have someone take them around town and ask them how to travel to certain places and landmarks, Town Hall to Old Trafford for example. Also questions like how they'd deal with angry customers.

Once you’ve spoken to a driver for half an hour you get a feel for what they're about and whether we want them at Street Cars. We don’t just want any old drivers. Some aren’t good enough to work for us.

They're the face of Street Cars. That’s why we introduced a uniform four and a half years ago. At that time we wanted to do something to stand out. We wanted to look better than our competition. So it was shirt and tie. Simple step but it’s worked for us.

How did the drivers take it?

Most were on board, but we did lose thirty drivers when we introduced the uniform. A lot of these guys had never worn a shirt and tie and couldn’t handle it. Those are the drivers we didn’t want anyway.

What's the major issue you have to contend with?

Biggest problem in all taxi driving companies is preventing overcharging.

Street Cars on hand after diverted flightsStreet Cars on hand after diverted flights

How do you combat that?

We have people everyday that monitor journeys from the previous 24 hours. They’ll pick random jobs and check the routes they’ve taken. We don’t have problems often, maybe one suspect journey a day. The driver will get a warning straight away. If we know drivers are overcharging we’ll get rid of them. No questions asked. We’ve got drivers waiting to work for us. We’ve no space for dishonest drivers. We’ve made it very difficult for the drivers to overcharge.

What has changed most about the city?

So much has changed in the last decade or two. There’s nearly 90,000 students now in Manchester, people assume they have no money but they have loads. There's been so many residential flats thrown up in the city centre bringing in all the young professionals. Spinningfields as a hospitality and financial centre too. All these areas used to be derelict. Now they're full of flats, businesses, shops, bars, restaurants, hotels. It's great for the city and great for us.

Something Manchester takes for granted is the size of both football teams now, they attract huge business and investment to the city. Another big recent move has been the BBC to Salford Quays. Media types love a taxi. Moving forward there's Airport City on the horizon. It's all great for us taxi companies.

Rangers in Manchester: they didn't leave quietlyRangers in Manchester: they didn't leave quietly

What's the longest journey a Street Car taxi has ever made?

Portsmouth. 250 miles away. Cost around £500 that one. A flight was diverted from Heathrow to Manchester. Another was when Glasgow Rangers came to Manchester. That was a crazy night. Luckily only one of our cars was damaged. We had so many jobs back to Scotland that day. We had one driver drop off in Scotland after the game, come back, then pick up another fare to Scotland. Mad.

Finally... What's your best taxi story?

We had a regular that used us nearly everyday. She got robbed of everything in America. Money, clothes, passport, phone, the lot. The only number she knew off by heart was the Street Cars number. So she rang us to arrange money to be taken from her friend to her mother then be transfered to America so that she could come home. We rescued her 4000 miles away. That's one of the clean ones. There's plenty more I could never tell you.

Street Cars Taxis: 0161 228 7878

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