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…