The Guardians of London's Black Cab 'Knowledge'
As London’s largest black taxi school closes, cab drivers insist the Knowledge is still strong—and Uber isn’t a threat.
Jess Jantharat and Martin Buckley study at Knowledge Point. Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard
Twenty-five thousand streets, 100,000 landmarks, 320 main routes criss-crossing the most congested city in Europe, all committed to memory. This is what it takes to drive one of London's iconic black taxis.
Since 1865, London taxi drivers have had to pass "the Knowledge of London," a gruelling training course that requires knowing every street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, the junction that intersects Whitehall and the Strand in the centre of the city. When a passenger hails a taxi and gives a destination, the driver will know where it is and the best way to get there, all without consulting a map or satnav. In addition to road names and directions, the driver will be familiar with every major point of interest.
"Now that can be a restaurant, a theatre, a hotel, a sports facility—obviously government buildings, public buildings … anything that the public is actually going to want to go to," explains Derek O'Reilly, an experienced black cab driver and training manager at Knowledge Point School, the largest school for London's taxi drivers.
O'Reilly speaks to me across a table covered in a large map of the metropolis he knows inside out. That six-mile circle stretches to around Wimbledon Common in the southwest and Tottenham cemetery in the northeast. But after around 15 years at its current location opposite Pentonville Prison on Caledonian Road, Knowledge Point School is closing its doors on December 18.
The closure of the school's premises, whose doors O'Reilly reckons have seen around a third of the city's taxi drivers pass through, raises questions about the enduring relevance of the Knowledge in an age of satnavs and Uber. Could technology mean the Knowledge becomes a lost art?
In a lecture room upstairs, O'Reilly teaches one of his more advanced classes. When I enter, the room is silent; 18 men and one woman are bent studiously over desks, which are once again covered in full-scale maps of London. The age range is noticeable; one man looks young enough that this may well be preparing for his first job, while others must be approaching retirement age.
Today's lesson is on "London's parks and open spaces." O'Reilly tasks the students with reciting cross-city routes from one little-known park to another, and with locating wildlife centres and natural features—heaven forbid you should confuse the Long Pond (Clapham Common) with the Long Water (the name given to the Serpentine when it crosses over into Kensington Gardens).
Jimmy Jeffery, now dutifully filling in the session's worksheet, tells me before the class that he is studying the Knowledge for more financial security and work flexibility. "I'm doing it for a pension, really," he says. "My pension's not very good now—we all know things have changed—and for freedom."
Jeffery works as a horseman, driving a horse and carriage at events and on film. He wants to swap the carriage for a cab and keep his horses as more of a hobby. Having started at the school around two years ago, he hopes to be driving a taxi by springtime. "I promised myself if I'm driving a cab by May, I'll be driving horses at the Royal Windsor Horse Show," he says.
O'Reilly tells me that people generally take around four years to complete the Knowledge, with more capable candidates managing in two or three and those less able to commit taking up to seven. A lot of people who come through the school's doors are what he calls "artisans"—"builders, plasterers, carpenters who get into their early 40s and are physically not able to maintain the trade they've been taught, and think it's an easier option to sit down and drive a taxi all day."
"Every time when you wake up in the middle of the night, the first thing in your mind is roads, and streets, and how you get there"
It might not be too physically strenuous, but no one could accuse it of being easy. The first exam Knowledge trainees pass is a written multiple choice paper on the 320 main routes. After that come the "appearances": a series of one-on-one oral exams in three different stages, in which examiners quiz would-be drivers on routes. They must always give the most direct route available, without hesitancy and taking care to remember traffic restrictions such as one-way streets and no-entry signs.
You can get the maximum 12 points, needed to pass to the next stage, only by achieving the AA "Exceptional" grade. The second-best grade, A "Very Good," only awards half the points needed, with lower grades offering further reductions. Most candidates have to collect points over many appearances. But too many failing grades and it's back to the start.
O'Reilly is a strict teacher. Jeffery says his mock exams are harder than the real thing, but that it's good preparation. "He's very fair and he gets you ready, because the most frightening thing is sitting in the chair [in front of the examiner]," he says.
Jess Jantharat, a relative beginner at the Knowledge who isn't in the advanced class, tells me that at first she didn't realise the commitment it required. She studies part-time around her job as a sales assistant at Marks and Spencer, putting in hours before work and then staying at the centre until evening. "Every time when you wake up in the middle of the night, the first thing in your mind is roads, and streets, and how you get there," she says.
In the lecture, O'Reilly calls on unsuspecting attendees for answers. He asks them to prove they've actually been to Queen's Park by naming what's in the middle, which isn't marked on the map—it's a Victorian bandstand. "You get arrested if you start going into parks at night," complains one trainee who says he practices after dark.
Aside from poring over maps, the learners spend a lot of time "pointing" on motorized scooters, going out to explore places of interest in real life. Outside Knowledge Point there isn't a black cab in sight; just dozens of scooters with plastic stands to carry maps on the front.
Amid the drills, O'Reilly drops in pearls of wisdom from anecdotes of previous candidates' appearances. At this time of year, he says, an examiner might even ask where they could go to see a reindeer.
"Come on gentlemen, you might pick up a passenger who's in a festive mood," he says. That passenger would want to go to Golders Hill Park or Clissold Park.
There's no denying that the Knowledge is difficult, and passing it an impressive achievement. But when you can become an Uber driver and pick up passengers along the same city streets without all the studying, why would anyone put themselves through it?
The prize for passing the Knowledge—as well as a driving test and Disclosure and Barring Service (previously CRB) check—is the coveted license to drive a London taxi, still popularly known as a black cab even though many are now painted in different colours or advertising designs. Taxis have privileges that private hire vehicles (minicabs) do not. Only taxis may be hailed in the street or at taxi ranks, while minicabs have to be booked in advance through an operator.
Uber, which first came to London in 2012, is a private hire service, albeit one that works through an app rather than the traditional call to an operator's landline. Like cab drivers, minicab drivers are licensed by government body Transport for London (TfL); they're not required to do the Knowledge but have to do a basic topographical test and pass a DBS check and medical.
I asked Jantharat if she hadn't considered working for Uber instead, given the long hours she was putting into the Knowledge on top of her job. She admitted she had thought of it but didn't want to work for a company. "At London taxi you work for yourself, you're your own boss, you decide what you want to do," she said. "With Uber, I think you still work for them. You're not your own boss really, even though you can choose your own hours."
Uber has long argued that its drivers are not employees but independent contractors free to work for any company, and it's a point Uber's London Manager Tom Elvidge emphasises when I speak to him on the phone. He explains the company's model is designed to have work available for drivers whenever they want it. "What we try to offer to drivers is a service that keeps them utilized as much as possible," he said.
Uber's surge pricing system supposedly helps level supply and demand, enticing more drivers out at high-demand times when prices are up, and vice versa. It might be based on algorithms, but Jantharat's sentiment echoes the findings of a recent paper by New York non-profit Data & Society that concluded Uber exerts more control over its drivers than its rhetoric might suggest.
The researchers pointed out that on top of the surge pricing system and feedback mechanisms, Uber sends its drivers nudges suggesting they shouldn't quit while demand is high or messages encouraging them to work at times predicted to be busy. They wrote that, "Uber's claims regarding its labor model—which center on freedom, flexibility, and entrepreneurship—are not borne out in the experience of Uber drivers, in large part due to the information asymmetries and controls that Uber exerts over driver behaviors through performance metrics, behavioural nudges, unreliable, dynamic rates, and scheduling prompts, and design."
Jeffery, one of the would-be black cab drivers I met at class, had a simple answer for why he chose the route of the black cab over Uber. "I don't want to give someone else 25 percent of my money," he said.
Uber takes a 25 percent fee from new drivers joining the platform, a hike from the previous 20 percent that resulted in a small driver protest in London in November. Elvidge said that, in October 2015, Uber drivers were earning about £16 an hour after Uber's fee, which he described as a "pretty healthy number." He said the commission went toward the costs associated with running the service, including technology, marketing, customer support, and services for drivers such as payment processing.
From a passenger perspective, the low costs are naturally Uber's main draw (so long as you don't get stuck in the company's notorious price surges), but this competitive edge has to be balanced so as to attract enough drivers to meet demand and allow them to make a living with reasonable work hours.
An Uber spokesperson said the average number of hours driven by UberX drivers recently was 30 hours a week, and Elvidge added that Uber monitored the hours its drivers were working, though he could not give exact figures of what would be considered exceeding safe limits.
Black cab prices are set by TfL and based on a meter system, the taximeter being another key feature exclusively licensed to London taxi cabs. O'Reilly suggested that the cost of black cab journeys was necessary for drivers to make a living. "A London taxi driver should be able to do an 8-10 hour shift and then be able to go home, because at the end of that you do need a rest; you've been driving in a busy environment," he said.
There's one thing O'Reilly wants to make clear: Uber isn't to blame (or credit) for the school's closure, despite headlines to the contrary. He insists that Uber is no more a competitor to black cabs than the existing private hire industry.
The reason for the school's closure, O'Reilly says, is part of a broader trend in the area: gentrification. With the school's lease up and rents rising as the Islington borough becomes an increasingly desirable location, the school is set to be demolished and turned into flats. "Which I suppose you can't argue [with], London does need homes," added O'Reilly. "It also needs taxi drivers."
The problem, O'Reilly says, is that the school needs a central location in order to serve students from across the city. With the directors at retirement age, he said he will continue the school's online presence and he's now in talks with London Taxi Company, which manufactures the actual black cab vehicles, to relocate the school somehow on its Brewery Road premises.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA), shared a similar view to O'Reilly on the influence of Uber on the taxi industry.
"No they're not a threat," he said in a phone interview. "We welcome competition, we've been competing with the minicab industry since the 1960s. Our biggest competitors are the people like [private hire service] Addison Lee—the big minicab firms; the ones who run it properly."
"The main story here is the story of small businesses and local businesses and local communities being torn apart by property developers and being forced out—that's the story," said McNamara.
The number of people taking the Knowledge across the city is also going down, though a TfL spokesperson said the number of taxi drivers overall was "remarkably constant" at around 25,000. There are over 20,000 Uber drivers registered in London, and just over 92,000 private hire licenses in total.
"When the economy's great, why am I going to pack my job in and spend three years on a moped to be a cab driver?"
According to TfL figures provided to me in an email, 1,802 people applied to do the Knowledge between April 2014 and March 2015. There were 2,201 applicants the previous year, 2,055 in 2012-2013, and 2,484 in 2011-2012. The numbers from the year 2000, when 3,419 people applied to do the Knowledge, until now, show a general downward trend with some notable fluctuations.
O'Reilly puts the current low numbers down to the comparatively stable economy. "The Knowledge numbers are down, simply because I think the economy is at an OK place," he said. "There's plenty of work out there for builders and plumbers, and traditionally the Knowledge gets better when the economy is down, because people are unemployed and they're looking for something to do so they do turn to the Knowledge."
McNamara offered the same explanation: "When the economy's great, why am I going to pack my job in and spend three years on a moped to be a cab driver?"
For people who are apparently little concerned by Uber, O'Reilly and McNamara both had a lot to say about the minicab app. Between them they noted news stories around Uber paying little corporation tax, cases of Uber drivers sexually assaulting passengers, and incidents of people able to get fake insurance documents approved by the app. They also regaled me with anecdotes of Uber drivers getting lost or going the wrong way up one-way streets.
For Uber's part, it also insists it is a private hire operator just like any other minicab firm. But the arrival of Uber on the scene nevertheless throws the traditional practices of the black cab industry into stark relief.
Having witnessed just a small sample of the studying required to pass the Knowledge, there is no doubt in my mind that current technology remains a long way off the trained human mind when it comes to mastering the uniquely labyrinthine streets of London, which resemble less a grid system and more a bowl of spaghetti. What's less clear is how willing passengers are to compromise on driver knowledge for thrift or ease of use.
O'Reilly acknowledged that the black cab industry had perhaps been slow to move with technology on a few fronts, such as accepting credit cards. Black cab drivers also have their own apps, such as Hailo and Gett, which allow passengers to book rides with black cab drivers. "We were probably a bit slow in promoting them," O'Reilly admitted.
He said drivers have to be where clients want them: "The days of people standing on street corners and hailing cabs in the rain are gone."
While both Uber officials and members of the London taxi community insist Uber is just another private hire company, there's no escaping the fact it is contributing to a palpable shift in the options available to riders. Jantharat said that while many taxi drivers offered words of encouragement when they spotted her pointing around town on her moped, others would say ,"Don't do it, it's not worth it," or "the game is finished," which she takes as a reference to driver competition.
The lines between taxis and private hire companies are blurring somewhat owing to advances exemplified by Uber. While black cabs are the only vehicles that may "ply for hire" on the street, Uber's app makes it a lot quicker to command a car to a passenger's current destination than the conventional call-in-advance procedure of private hire companies. Earlier this year TfL asked the High Court to rule if Uber's app constitutes a taximeter—which only black cabs are allowed. To the dismay of taxi interest groups, the Court ruled it wasn't.
"It is a level playing field," said Uber's Elvidge. "We may have slightly different technology, we may be taking bookings in a different way, but there's no reason other [private hire] operators couldn't work in the same way."
TfL is currently considering new regulations for the private hire industry that might prevent lines blurring so much. Proposals include requiring private hire companies to allow bookings seven days in advance, give booking confirmations at least five minutes ahead of picking up a passenger, and specify the fare and destination in advance. There's also a proposal that private hire operators shouldn't be able to show cars available for immediate hire either in real life or in an app.
The outcome will refine the regulatory distinctions between Knowledge-backed taxis and private hire vehicles in the age of Uber. Which, it should be noted, is vehemently opposing the proposals.
As Knowledge Point closes its doors, at least for now, O'Reilly and McNamara are both insistent that the Knowledge itself will not only live on but continue to definitively differentiate taxi drivers from private hire colleagues. To them, it is the reason the London black cab maintains its iconic status, consistently voted the best taxi service worldwide.
It becomes less about whether the Knowledge is strictly necessary in the 21st century and more about maintaining that distinction between the taxis and minicabs.
The rules governed by TfL lay out the special rights that give taxis a unique position in the city transport system, but the Knowledge justifies those privileges. In the face of innovation in the private hire sector, the black cab fights to keep its position as a demonstrably different service. The Knowledge is its amulet: the one-word answer that distinguishes the taxi driver from the minicab contractor, even as services such as Uber arguably bring the two closer in terms of passenger experience.
As such, the pride drivers take in what many call the most difficult test in the world is undiminished, even if the same can't be said right now for the numbers taking the exam.
"I don't regard Uber as competition," says O'Reilly in the map room. "I regard it as an inferior product."