Knowledge Point Story - Taxi
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Big Read: Armed with ‘The Knowledge’ London’s black taxis square up to Uber

In a classroom above a quiet taxi service centre in Islington, North London, dozens of people, almost all men, spend hours each day studying maps and memorizing the peculiarities of the capital’s famously anachronistic streets.

The Knowledge Centre is one of the training locations for the notoriously challenging memory test that qualifies a candidate to drive one of London’s 22,500 black taxis. The Knowledge has been a requirement in London since 1865. It is seen by many as the traditional route to a stable job. It is also a tradition which provides a stark contrast to technology giants like Uber.

The Silicon Valley ride-hailing company has been operating in London for five years and is the city’s largest private hire company. In September, London’s transport authority announced that it would not be renewing Uber’s operating licence. Transport for London (TfL) said that the company’s approach to background checks on its drivers and other regulatory lapses demonstrated a “lack of corporate responsibility” that put Londoners at risk.

The decision was a blow for a company which claims to employ 40,000 drivers in London. It was also the latest in a string of controversies. TfL’s announcement was supported by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who said: “Providing an innovative service must not be at the expense of Londoners’ safety.” Other politicians were more critical. In an interview with the BBC, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that the decision to withdraw Uber’s licence was “disproportionate.”

A few days after TfL announced it was not renewing Uber’s licence, the company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, issued a statement apologizing for past mistakes. He reaffirmed Uber’s commitment to finding long-term local partners and “to work with London to make things right and keep this great global city moving safely.”

Studying the Knowledge

Neil used to drive a minicab for a private company. He is currently a bus driver while he trains for the Knowledge to have more control of his hours (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC-BY-SA 4.0)

At the training centre, the candidates are dismissive of Uber. London has 24,000 Knowledge-qualified licencees. Many sitting the Knowledge share the view that passing the test puts a driver in a privileged and even elite position among the capital’s transport workers. Tommy, a window cleaner, comes to the centre most days after his morning round. He has been studying for five years.

“I’ve been told it’s like going to university and getting a degree,” he says. “But at the end of it you get a job.”

Many here cite the flexibility and independence enjoyed by self-employed black taxi drivers as a key motivator. Neil, currently a bus driver, has been studying part-time for six and a half years. He has two young children. Dean, a former roofer, says his last job didn’t pay enough to support his family.

“I needed to improve my situation.”

The candidates are often paired up, here Dean tests Tommy on his memory of a set of road “points” (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Andy, a former chemical engineer, started training for the Knowledge two years ago. He says he studies 80 hours a week.

“I speak bits of five languages, I’ve got two degrees, and this is easily the hardest thing I’ve done.”

The Knowledge is also a considerable financial investment for new drivers. Basic admin fees charged by TfL can total £1,000 and studying requires an enormous time commitment. Many candidates either give up work or commit to a longer period of study while employed.

The candidates here are a few of more than 2,000 people currently studying the Knowledge in 11 Knowledge schools across London. Several of the city’s training centres, such as the London Knowledge School in Essex, pair candidates to work together. Others, such as the Eleanor Cross centre in West London, provide classes led by an experienced black cab driver.

Knowledge Point can have over 20 people studying the maps at peak times. Students typically reinforce their memory by taking out one of the centre’s mopeds.

The problem with Uber

London’s black cabs are among the city’s most characteristic icons (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Some here, such as Andy, say that Uber has emerged to meet a demand but should obey regulations.

“It’s a minicab service, and there is a place in the market for a minicab service,” he says. “If I have a grief with Uber it’s not about them providing a service it’s about them having no standards whatsoever and not paying taxes.”

At least 3.5 million Londoners have registered the Uber app and, for many users, it reinforces the city’s status as a modern, interconnected city. An Uber journey is invariably cheaper than a black cab. Other competitors have also followed in Uber’s wake. While the company’s biggest American rival, Lyft, does not currently operate in London, Addison Lee, London’s biggest private hire operator before Uber, launched its own app in 2015. The company claims to combine cheap fares with an option to book drivers in advance. Uber allows people to schedule a ride but if no drivers are available then the user may not get one.

Faced with an onslaught of new technology, traditional black cabs have also unveiled apps like MyTaxi and Gett which offer the convenience of Uber with the safety of a Knowledge-qualified driver. When TfL announced that it would not be renewing Uber’s licence, MyTaxi responded by offering a 50 percent discount on all fares. The fortunes of these companies may be boosted if Uber’s appeal against TfL’s decision fails.

A generation of drivers

To both outsiders and residents, London is a 21st century city with a road network from the 12th century. Rigorous driver testing is crucial for a city so difficult to navigate. The roads are traffic clogged and flow systems are occasionally counter-intuitive. Ensuring drivers are trained is a matter of public safety.

As London is gripped by ongoing construction, many drivers say that the tests are getting harder. Donald, a driver waiting in the service centre downstairs, says he passed the Knowledge in 1983.

“I took two years [but] you’ve got Canary Wharf now.”

“I’ve got one brother who did it in 1980, then I came, then two sisters, and a nephew … they all did the Knowledge.”

Donald says he was the quickest in his family to pass the Knowledge, doing so in 1983 after two years. He says it has become harder since then (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Following the family business is a common motivation for Londoners.

“My great great grandfather walked over the hill from Stansted into London and apprenticed himself to a horse-cab owner,” says Andy.

His family have been in the transportation business for 150 years. His father took the Knowledge in 1962 after studying part-time for 15 months.

The most common reason for taking the Knowledge is the independence afforded to black cab drivers. Most drivers are independent contractors and rent their vehicles for around £200 a week.

“It’s difficult, it’s harder than I thought,” says Dean. “I want to work for myself, work around my children and my family.”

Warren, who has been studying part-time since 2013, has recently given up work to focus on the Knowledge.

“My Mrs has had to support me through it so I’m just lucky that I’m in a situation where she can help me,” he says. “But that means it’s taken its toll on her. It puts pressure on the relationship but at the end of the day I’ve got a partner to stick by me through this.”

Warren. The Knowledge candidates are given use of mopeds to apply the map work on the street (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Competing global brands

The black cab is one of the city’s most recognisable icons and for many visitors the first interaction they have with a Londoner. But London is not alone in setting high standards — Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Auckland have well established tests for drivers. Dubai is currently developing a similar exam.

In London, as well as life as a black cab driver, the candidates are also drawn by what they view as the prestige of being Knowledge-certified. Andy describes London’s taxi service as “iconic.”

“Taxi driving is occupying a level of quality just below the limousine,” he says.

“Anyone can be a minicab driver,” says Warren. He says drivers who have passed the Knowledge are part of “the elite.” He hopes to have passed in a few weeks.

“My life should change for the better afterwards. I’ve got children so I can work around them and hopefully get a better lifestyle at the end of it.”

The candidates here are still willing to commit the time and money to the Knowledge, confident that this “iconic” status will survive the challenge presented by Uber.

“There have been minicabs in London since minicabs came out in the ‘60s,” says Andy, “Uber is simply a nice marketing twist.”

A London “Black Cab” (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC-BY-SA 4.0)

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Jack Barton

"Hi Paul, we thought looking into the ..."

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"This story is terribly slanted and bi..."

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United Kingdom
Jack Barton is a staff journalist at WikiTribune where he writes about international law, human rights and finance, whilst covering daily news. He was previously a senior reporter at Law Business Research and has experience covering law and international development, with credits in the Sunday Times, the New Indian Express, and New Statesman online among others. He has an LLM in Human Rights and worked on a UN-funded research project, looking at peace processes.

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Big Read: Armed with ‘The Knowledge’ London’s black taxis square up to Uber

Talk about this Story

  1. Flagged as bias

    This story is terribly slanted and biased. It has a subsection called “The Problem With Uber”. It’s not that I’m defending all of the shady things Uber does, but what about all of the problems with black cabs?

    London cabbies utterly failed to modernize for 100 years. There was no app, no rating system for drivers, no simple way to dispute a fair, and the awkwardness of tipping. They’re over-priced. Cabbies have been criticized as discriminatory in who they pick up and hostile to cyclists. The cabs themselves have inefficient, dirty diesel engines that pump out nitrous oxide and other deadly pollutants. The whole “Knowledge” thing is half anachronism, half myth – London cabbies get directions wrong all the time and Google Maps detects traffic jams in real time. From an economics perspective, the black cabs constitute a cartel, which is intrinsically inefficient and bad for consumers. And in the long term, none of this matters because they’re going to be replaced by self-driving tech and all be out of work.

    What is going on here? Wikitribune is supposed to be this experiment in fixing journalism, and one of the first stories is a hit piece on Uber.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Paul, we thought looking into the Knowledge would be a good way to do some reporting that people might find interesting – while Uber is in the news fairly regularly, we wanted to take a slightly different approach to the articles already out there. As you can see from the other comments your issues with this article are shared and I believe there is a piece in the works that discusses the debate with a more analytical approach.

  2. Rewrite

    I’m just about to create a new Story which is my attempt at an Explainer on this general issue, using “stakeholders” as the key theme.

    Having been around the site trying to work out how best to do this, it seems as though the only thing I can do is take the plunge and see what happens. It will all be embarrassing but also highly educational. Hopefully James and Jack will somehow find my crude first draft and either kill it or make it usable.

    1. Rewrite

      It’s been submitted. Hopefully Jack will semi-automatically be informed and James will be brought in if the idea isn’t deemed too hopeless. And hopefully someone will tell me how I could have got the involvement sooner rather than later

  3. Flagged as bias

    The story is written with the apparent assumption that the old way is the best way. I’d argue that a more useful article would be a comparison of what each of the stakeholders wants from the relationship (however temporary) and how well each approach serves each stakeholder.

    1. Rewrite

      Your point about “stakeholders” is much better than my earlier attempt. It’s an important general point for WikiTribune. In all these difficult issues there are multiple stakeholders and if an article (intentionally or unintentionally) sets up a simple dichotomy between, say, Knowledge and Uber drivers we are missing out on the other stakeholders. I was startled to read (citation needed) that 35% of London traffic is now cabs. [Hmmm… London Congestion Trends report by Inrix shows a reduction in car/taxi/PHV use 2012-14 so even if there’s an increase in % cabs it’s against a smaller number. Shows how complex it is to sort out issues and why it’s good to check facts] May an argument for restricted cab numbers be a reduction in traffic, with the counterargument of inconvenience and a tube/bus service that cannot cope?

      How can this “stakeholder” view be built in to the DNA of WikiTribune? Sorry, Jack, this is heading off topic but James has put his finger on something that has bothered me about most of the WikiTribune articles so far. They tend to be very nice, but would benefit from a clearer identification of the complex stakeholder issues.

      1. Rewrite

        You both raise interesting questions. I think Steven’s question about how we can incorporate this approach into WikiTribune suggests, to me, that the appropriate type of story for these questions would be an explainer? I am sure we would be interested in publishing an explainer on the debate.

        1. Rewrite

          I agree. I’ve found in these first days of WT that the stories I find most satisfying are the explainers, pieces that give context and the interests of the (always) multiple stakeholders.

          1. Rewrite

            OK, do we, the amateurs just say “OK, Jack, drop all your other stuff and write an explainer.”? Or do we attempt to create something ourselves, under your guidance?
            Last night all I did was my first scary attempt to comment on WT. Suddenly tonight I find my bluff being called.
            James, are we volunteering ourselves to try an explainer? If so, how the heck would we begin? Or do we leave it to the professionals?

            1. Rewrite

              OK. Here are what I’d suggest as ingredients of an Explainer addressing this topic.
              Disruption
              – Long history of technological disruptions.
              – Typical stakeholder roles in these disruptions

              Personal Conveyance
              – Requirements
              – History
              – Stakeholders: Passenger; Conveyor; Road Network Operators; Environmental Consequences
              – Benefits & costs for each stakeholder
              – Economics for Stakeholders

              Uber/Lyft vs. Taxis
              – Where they fit in
              – Addressing each of the benefits/costs identified above

              Nice simple task – sounds like a book to me.

              1. Rewrite

                I love your clarity of thought/analysis. I suppose I’d disagree with the need for a general “disruption” analysis because “everyone” knows that stuff. And, yes, as someone who writes technical books, writing a book on the topic would be easy. Writing a meaningful Explainer would be very hard. That’s the challenge.
                Presumably a New Project has to be started to construct this. I need to re-read the WT Help on all this. Last time I went through it, the thought that I might be involved in writing an Explainer was nowhere around so I glossed over it all.

  4. Rewrite

    “The company claims to combine cheap fares with an option to book drivers in advance, which Uber does not offer.”

    Within the Uber app you can “Schedule a Ride”, where you specify the desired picking time.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Anthony. Uber’s option doesn’t actually book a driver, so you may not get a ride if none are available when your scheduled ride comes up, as it says on their website https://www.uber.com/info/scheduled-rides/ I will submit a clarification in case the article is misleading. Thanks

  5. Rewrite

    It would be helpful to mention two potential issues with a “knowledge”-based system. The current version reads as though Knowledge-based drivers are necessarily good and noble, supporting their families, while competitors are somehow the bad guys. Something like the following:
    “With the additional upside of being able to use Bus/Taxi lanes, the black cab driver enjoys a strong incumbent’s advantage, which competitors might regard as being unfair. How much should an incumbent industry/technology be defended from competition via regulation? When regulation is favouring those who have a demonstrable advantage over those who are not regulated, regulation is good. When it is stopping genuine competition then regulation is less attractive. And while we all have stories of clueless non-Knowledge drivers relying on bad GPS routes, the best GPS systems can spot problems unknown to those who rely purely on the Knowledge. As soon as Knowledge drivers seek GPS assistance, the distinction between the two groups starts to diminish.”

    1. Rewrite

      Thanks Steven, you make some interesting points. I tried to cover all of the advantages of the black cab’s competitors to make this fair but I will look at how to source and incorporate your point about the advantages that regulation offers black cabs. Jack

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