I’ve heard it all. “Black cabs are too expensive.” “Cabbies are uneducated and bolshie.” “Why hail a London Taxi when apps like Uber get me from A to B for so much less?” At the end of the day, one can easily call the best Oyster contact number and get all the information to save money on public transportation.
But close your eyes, picture London city in your mind and there it is – Big Ben, the London Eye, the double-decker bus…The iconic London taxi and four hundred glorious years of history.
With new market entrants such as Uber, the future of the trade appears to have been put in real jeopardy. But where would we be without the black cab?
Towards the far end of the Caledonian Road, or “the Cally” as it was always known to me as a child, is one of the original Knowledge Schools. Inside you’ll find groups of dedicated young men and women, pouring blood, sweat and tears into the learning of the cab trade. From scanning maps and memorising routes, to spending hours on bikes trawling the streets of London, such is the intensity of doing the Knowledge that around 7 in 10 students drop out before they even reach their appearances – a process in which drivers are tested on any of a possible several hundred routes across London.
Ask any cabbie and these gruelling interview-style examinations will reveal a multitude of stories. It is common for examiners to deliberately throw drivers off track by telling them they’ve made a mistake, or by distracting them in some way.
I’ll never forget one particular tale that my Dad used to tell me – during one of his appearances the examiner took out a set of keys and started to swing them backwards and forwards like a pendulum. Determined to stay focused, Dad closed his eyes and continued to finish the route.
“Nice story. But why should I care?” I hear you mutter.
Because it’s stories like these that demonstrate the sheer pride and determination that goes into becoming one of London’s 30,000 black cab drivers. Despite all the technological advances and all the competition, these men and women still put themselves through this demanding process. Why?
Because despite the constant murmur of people telling me the trade has become obsolete, it still has differentiators that modern-day competitors can only yearn for.
The sheer achievement of completing the Knowledge should be noted as one. Spending several years memorising 10,000 different places in London should be considered an accomplishment in itself! Add the many streets and hundreds of routes on top of that and you have a skill that most of us have no chance of ever achieving in our lifetime. There can be no doubt that black cabbies will always have a far better grasp of where you want to go, than any other kind of taxi service.
Another big reason is the freedom. Once you have passed out, got your badge and cab, the world (well London), is your oyster! Being a black cab driver provides you with the autonomy to shape your career around you. If you’re a family man you can make sure you’re always there for sports days and swimming galas. Religious drivers have the flexibility to schedule their hours around the times when they might want to pray or visit their place of worship.
Technology is a marvellous thing and I get the impression that most black cabbies are aware that their beloved trade needs to move with the times. But with such a sheer lack of support from their governing body TfL, how do they have a hope in hell of competing?
Year upon year the black cab tops polls as the most famous and well-respected taxi service in the world. Ask those who are familiar with New York cabs and Parisian taxis – many will tell you that the black cab service is a god send in comparison. For the black cab driver the journey is so much more than getting you from one place to another. It’s about human interaction, with cabbies often playing agony aunt. It’s also about providing a safe and knowledgeable service. Black cabs are more expensive, I get it. But that’s because passengers receive a much higher quality service. (I’d like to point out here that cabbies themsleves do not set the tarrifs, TfL is in charge of that!)
So why are standards in our own city being lowered – in the form of Uber drivers who have no clue where they are going and who admit that they deliberately choose longer routes in order to earn more? In addition, reports of harassment and sexual assaults by improperly vetted drivers are becoming an increasingly greater worry.
It is true that cabbies can no longer rely solely on being a heritage brand, or a pretty part of London’s scenery. But where is TfL’s support, in ensuring that these 30,000 drivers get the technology and tools that they need, in order to keep their jobs, maintain their beloved careers and provide for their families?