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
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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