Will satnav kill the London cabbies’ Knowledge?by Hephzibah Anderson / September 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Since getting behind the wheel of one of London’s black taxis in 2008, Mark Baxter has acquired some tall but true tales, like the one about the couple who faked pregnancy and labour pains in an attempt to scam a free ride from Claridge’s to Clapham. Then there’s the chap who tried to impress his date by challenging Baxter to a game of name-that-street. The prize? Double or quits on the fare. Thanks to the Knowledge, it was a good night for the cabbie.
Unique in the world of taxi driving, the Knowledge is the process by which cabbies memorise London’s streets and places of interest. It came into being in 1865 back when a hackney carriage was a horse-drawn hansom cab, and is a gruelling feat of learning that lasts, on average, as long as a university degree. This know-how means drivers can take customers from A to B via some fly side streets—or “back doubles,” as these short cuts are known—thereby justifying a tariff that seems steep partly because passengers have to sit there watching the meter tick.
The Knowledge is also the tool with which black cab drivers have guarded their monopoly. Regular minicabs have no “for hire” signs because they must be pre-booked; only licensed hackney carriages may actively tout for fares on the street. In cities like New York, such permits are purchased; in London they’re granted exclusively to those with the Knowledge. As a gatekeeper, it is incredibly effective—there are 21,500 black cab licence holders in London, a number that has scarcely fluctuated over the years.
Yet the black cab driver’s exceptionalism and the Knowledge itself are under siege. Earlier this year, John Griffin, chairman of Europe’s largest private hire firm, Addison Lee, mounted an assault on one of the hackney carriages’ exclusive privileges: the use of bus lanes. Encouraging his drivers to use them, he earned some 800 tickets and a legal suit brought by Transport for London. (Griffin went on to derail his cause further with some anti-cyclist comments that no doubt won him grudging support from rival cabbies, but also lost the company a lucrative Whitehall contract.) Meanwhile, an app launched by Addison Lee last year is helping the firm to get around the ban on trawling for trade.
Technological advances pose a more pernicious threat. Though cabbies continue to trounce satellite navigation-assisted drivers in cross-London races, the machines are gaining ground. TomTom released its first navigator product in 2002. Within two years it was offering live traffic data. Features now include weather information, text-to-speech, user-generated content about road closures, Google local search, real-time speed camera updates, and a choice of voices in which to be told “Recalculating… Recalculating… Recalculating,” as you trundle on in the wrong direction having failed to make that non-existent right turn.
In just a decade, the satnav has become ubiquitous. The 4,500 vehicles that make up Addison Lee’s fleet, for instance, all carry them. Meanwhile, the official stance of the black cab driver remains cocky. “We see them as no threat at all,” Steve McNamara, general secretary of the London Taxi Drivers Association, told me. “They are all, pardon my French, shit.”
As Baxter’s passenger learnt, the Knowledge is tough to beat. Its acquisition requires exams, both written and oral. It’s not unheard of for “Knowledge Boys” (and girls) to put in 70-hour weeks, puttering about by scooter learning the 320 journeys or “runs” found in the Blue Book. The goal is to internalise the entire Knowledge zone, which extends in a six mile radius from Charing Cross. That’s as far as Alexandra Palace in the north and Crystal Palace in the south, Stratford in the east and Chiswick in the west. A cabbie should ultimately be able to get from anywhere to everywhere within that zone. The runs are just a tool to help learn its 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and places of interest.
Lacking anything resembling a grid system, London’s ancient tangle of crescents and squares and alleyways presents the driver with problems that examiners eagerly compound. They have recently asked candidates to provide routes that avoid traffic lights—all major junctions, in practice—and each has his or her own quirks. One, for instance, is fond of including obscure points such as the city’s smallest statue—two mice nibbling cheese on Philpot Lane—or the Policeman’s Coat Hook, which is a peg on the wall of a building in Great Newport Street. The Knowledge dropout rate tops 70 per cent. It’s little wonder that those who stay the course develop enlarged hippocampi.
To help and encourage would-be cabbies, Baxter, a former Grange Hill actor, teaches a twice-weekly class at the West London Knowledge School, where he was recently to be found wearing a cartoon t-shirt captioned “the Mutts’ nuts,” his driver’s badge slung around his neck. The school occupies a handful of rooms in a community centre on the fringes of a canal-side estate, its walls and tabletops covered with laminated maps, the thin blue line of the Thames snaking across each. Off to one side, a run is being “called” by a Knowledge Boy who must be nearing 40. Eyes are closed as if in prayer, he chants street names swiftly as an auctioneer: “Leave by… Forward… Left, forward, bear left into…” He’s watched by his classmates, all aged between 30 and 50, one wearing specs pushed up above an anxious frown, another—an Addison Lee driver, it turns out—unable to quit tapping his foot beneath the table. Concentration is total and I’m admitted only after showing ID sufficient to prove that I’m not a spy from another school.
Needless to say, everyone here has a favourite satnav flaw. In addition to dead zones, in the heart of the Square Mile roads become so narrow and closely entwined that the machine can’t tell which you’re on. It will also stick to the main roads, sending you the same way at 5pm as 5am. On a more basic level, you need to know where you’re going, which people who hail taxis tend not to. They’ll say things like “Take me to Blood Brothers.” Or else they’ll ask for Albany Road, of which there are six. Unless, of course, they actually mean Albany Street.
The Knowledge provides the means to solve all these problems. But it serves a further purpose that has nothing to do with which of the Shaftesbury Avenue theatres lets you set down on the right. Cabbies are by nature individualistic. Take Mike O’Connor for instance. The yearning for freedom that led him to walk away from a 20-year career in banking was also what made him embark on the Knowledge. The idea of having to take orders from a controller, like a minicab driver, is anathema to the average cabbie, and yet once they accept you as a fare, they are contractually obliged to take you where you want to go. The Knowledge, then, encompasses elements of breaking a horse. “You’ve got to be of strong mind,” says O’Connor, who was shocked by how hard he found the “appearances,” the series of oral exams at the Public Carriage Office in Blackfriars to which candidates must arrive suited and booted, and address examiners as sir or ma’am. There will be always that one examiner who’s really out to get you going, explains Baxter.
The satnav, trying though it is, teaches none of this. In fact, you’ll find few unequivocal supporters anywhere in the taxi trade. Addison Lee will not hire a driver without prior minicab experience, and Ilford-based Leon Gold, who has worked as a self-employed private hire driver for eight years, says he generally knows a faster route than his satnav. “It assists but it doesn’t replace experience,” he adds.
But if there’s one thing that must haunt cabbies during slow time, it’s software advances that seek to exploit experience. Addison Lee has its own dedicated team of 16 software engineers working out of an office in Russia. One, says marketing manager Alastair Laycock, is the progeny of Soviet space programme engineers. By tracking drivers as they move around the city, they’ve pooled half-a-dozen years of data with the aim of extracting the optimal route at any given time of the day.
“Satnav technology is never going to replace a really good driver but you can use technology to share the knowledge of the very best drivers,” Laycock explains. The main challenge at the moment, he admits, is what to do when road closures throw the inevitable spanner in the works. This is where the enduring strength of the Knowledge lies. Watson may have triumphed in Jeopardy! and computers regularly beat us on the chess board, but the city is profoundly human. Though the Knowledge focuses on the material fabric—the bridges and bars and one-way streets—what it provides is a mechanism for coping with the humanity of the metropolis, that rogue element so prone to causing street closures and tailbacks at inexplicable hours. As the cabbie O’Connor says, “London’s alive, do you know what I mean?”
In Will Self’s 2006 novel, The Book of Dave, a cabbie’s diary becomes a bible in post-apocalyptic London 500 years hence. While the technology that gave us satnavs has been ground to dust, hymns are strung together from Knowledge factoids. It might not last quite that long, but a London in which a hi-tech gizmo trumps what lies between a cabbie’s two ears is likely to be one in which cabs fly—or are at least self-driving.