Who wouldn’t be rooting for London’s black-cab drivers in the latest assault on tradition and perhaps the drivers’ livelihoods?
These drivers, who find themselves fending off ridesharing service Uber, spend years learning their craft before they actually earn the rank of London cab driver. They know not only how to get from point A to point B in central London, but also how to get from point A to points C,D,E,F,G and from point G to Point K or point Q to point L. You name it. London’s black-cab drivers know the six square miles radiating out from Charing Cross better than they know themselves. They know every street and alley, every monument, historic site and landmark — roughly 25,000 streets and 20,000 monuments.
The drivers’ geographic brilliance is known as The Knowledge and every black-cab driver must demonstrate that he or she has mastered it before being awarded a taxi medallion (or a green badge in this case). It’s a mind-boggling amount of information that takes on average four years of walking and driving the streets of London to learn.
And yet, it’s something your smartphone knows the day you take it out of the box, right?
Not so fast, says London cabbie David Styles, who writes the CabbieBlog.
“Satnavs are hopeless in London’s complex and ever-changing road network,” Styles tells me by email, referring to satellite navigation systems. “Often an alternative route might be longer, but faster. In fact, many of our customers will have a preferred route.”
And I want to believe Styles — and admit it, you do, too. I want to believe that there is a benefit to being driven by a man who spent more than four years studying the streets of London, rather than a driver who takes machine-issued directions well. There is something intuitive about the argument that there are subtleties, aberrations, emotional factors, that humans can understand and machines can’t — the idea, for instance, that the longer route is actually the shorter route.
Cabbie Robert Lordan, who blogs at View from the Mirror: A Cabbie’s London, tells me the times when human intuition is invaluable in his black cab are endless. Take Jermyn Street, pronounced “German Street.” How many enter that correctly into a GPS device? He’s been flagged down by people needing to get to the emergency room, who figure a black cab is faster than an ambulance.
“I’ve lost count of the times in which a passenger has mixed up roads and destinations,” Lordan adds by email. Like the woman who wanted to go to King William Street in Covent Garden. He knew there was a King William Street, but it’s in the financial district. And he knew that there was a William IV Street in the vicinity of Covent Garden, so he asked the woman where in particular she was headed. A restaurant, she said. Terroirs, he asked? Bingo.
“I frequently meet passengers who are unsure of where they’re going, who are only vaguely aware of the address, who get muddled up,” Lordan added. “People who want to go to multiple destinations (and not always by the most direct route); people who change their mind halfway through a journey; people who want hotel, restaurant, pub recommendations; ideas of places where they can take their kids; people who want to know about London and its history; about obscure museums and so on and so on.”
But we’re steeped in a world of technological wonders. We’ve seen what machines can do, how they can make life easier, tasks quicker and businesses more profitable. It sets up a classic debate: human vs. machine.
Ironically enough, in this digital age, that binary view doesn’t do the discussion justice. As I’ve written before, often it’s the case that the right answer is human plus machine. Big data is a fantastic tool for rooting out problems, predicting the future and designing the best course of action. But it takes humans to interpret that data and to design the right questions to ask, and the right methods to go about answering them. It takes an approach that yields what has sometimes been described as thick data.
And it turns out, thank goodness, that there are demonstrable things that a London cabbie armed with The Knowledge can do that the GPS guiding an Uber car through London cannot.
Start with the fact, uncovered by neurologists at the University College London, that the hippocampi of London cabbies are bigger than those of the general population and that their memories are better, too.
“The city becomes a part of you,” Lordan says, offering a plausible non-scientific explanation. “You have a handle on it and know how to deal with the many problems and conundrums, which occur every day.”
And then consider the thoughts of Paul Densham of University College London, who is not a neurologist, but a geography instructor whose work has been incorporated into modern surveying and positioning systems. There are times, he says, when an algorithm is not up to the task. What does an algorithm know about timed and untimed traffic signals, or the events that cause pedestrian traffic to surge and repeatedly halt auto traffic as mob after mob avails itself of the crosswalk?
“There have been attempts to bring in real-time traffic feedback,” says Densham, who is a reader at UCL, “but again, if everybody is getting the same feedback, then all our algorithms are going to recommend similar diversions. The irony is that at the moment, the black-cab driver is probably in a better position than the Uber software in terms of working in London.”
In other words, the cab driver can find the longer route that is shorter. It’s what they do and in doing so for as long as any Londoner can remember, the black-cab drivers and their distinctive cars have become an enduring thread in the city’s fabric.
“They’re like the red bus and the red post box and what have you,” Densham says. “They’re sort of an icon of Britain and London in particular.”
Which is not to say there aren’t circumstances in in which a black-cab driver might benefit from teaming up with a machine.
Styles pointed out that cabbies use a system called Hailo and GetTaxi that allow passengers to order up a black cab, rather than hail one on the street. A new service called Maaxi has recently launched. And a driver who asked that his name not be published, said he turns to GPS to navigate outside of London — never in the city center, where he says he knows every restaurant, ATM, nightclub and toilet.
Toilets? People ask to be driven to toilets?
“Yeah. One guy needed one and I got him there,” the driver says.
Densham says he could see a day where a machine becomes the black cabbies’ ally even in the center of the city. Say, for instance, he says, the already horrendous congestion in London becomes worse. It might become necessary for cabbies to have more technology to help them overcome the jams.
Though don’t count on Styles firing up a computer to help him find his way around a bottleneck. No need, he says, to let a GPS system help with the route, so he can chat with passengers or describe points of interest.
“You know, it takes us a few seconds to work out the route in our heads before we drive off,” he says. “The rest of the time, we tend to be on auto-pilot. An old cabbie once said to me that you know the time when you have cracked it is when you don’t have to think anymore.”
Styles offers a fairly convincing argument and some reassurance that the black cabbies are not going away anytime soon — a notion I’m happy to embrace.
In fact, let’s just say it: All hail the black cabs of London.