Malcolm Linskey expects tears. The 70-year-old will retire soon, an event hastened by falling demand for the business he started 30 years ago, Knowledge Point, a training school for London black cab drivers. “It’s crazy, we’re going to be brushed aside,” he says.
The cabby school, London’s largest, is to close its doors in December on the building it has occupied for 26 years in Islington, north London, blaming the twin pressures of Uber and increased property prices.
Mr Linskey says it will continue to produce and sell taxi driver training materials in print and online supplemented by training sessions in church halls and community centres.
Uber, the cut-price taxi app that started in San Francisco, has sparked protests of unfair competition from cab drivers across the world. In May, parts of London were in gridlock following a demonstration by taxi drivers who felt the lack of regulation favoured such “e-hailing” apps.
London cabbies must study “the Knowledge”, learning their way round 25,000 streets as well as all the twists and turns of dead-ends and one-way roads. Before obtaining the green badge, which will license them to pick up fares in London, they will be tested on routes, for example from Manor House to Gibson Square. The school helps aspiring drivers reduce the time — on average about three and a half years — it takes to learn the various routes.
“We can circumnavigate traffic. The Queen might be entertaining China but you might want to get to Victoria to go on holiday,” says Mr Linskey.
In contrast, Uber drivers, typically equipped with a sat nav, are not required to know their way round London’s nooks and crannies.
Uber’s rapid expansion in London contributed to diminished demand for the school’s courses. Mr Linskey nods in the direction of the training room which contains laminated maps of London pinned to desks. There used to be queues to get into the room, which accommodates 40, he says. Now there are 10 to 12 rattling around. “Demand has gone down since Uber arrived. Usually we have 350 students enrolling a year, last year it was 200.”
Among their ranks, he insists, are former Uber drivers tired of working very long hours just to get by. He scoffs at the idea that the flexibility of the internet economy helps self-employed drivers. “They are flexible to work themselves to death.”
A spokesman for the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, notes that cab-driving has traditionally been a profession passed down from father to son, but says veteran drivers are now advising their children to stay away. “It’s always been a joke that the ‘game’s dead’”, he says. It is no longer a laughing matter, he adds.
Downstairs in Knowledge Point’s sludgy green rooms, studying routes across London, is Stewart Chapman, who enrolled in 2012. He hopes to qualify as a black cab driver in six months and is determined to be optimistic about his future profession. Mr Chapman believes black cabs are for the discerning customer prepared to pay a premium. “There are enough people in London with money — it’s like picking Waitrose over Lidl.” He sniffs at Uber drivers’ lack of experience. “People don’t appreciate the skill that goes into driving a cab. You don’t decide you want to be a doctor and turn up at a hospital.”
Thirty-year-old Roony Keefe, from a family of cab drivers, hopes to qualify just ahead of the doors closing. “Quality prevails. We’ll win out.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Dean Warrington, who runs the WizAnn Knowledge school, which also teaches the Knowledge. He believes it is minicab firms rather than black cabs that are vulnerable to Uber.
Mr Linskey says gentrification is spoiling the character of Islington, which is where he grew up, and adds that local property prices are too high for the current taxi college business model to be sustainable.
“This isn’t N7 any more, it’s Envision 7,” he says, wrinkling his nose at estate-agent speak. The school is opposite Pentonville prison, on a tatty bit of Caledonian Road. Just five minutes down the road is the old family home of Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister.
Derwent, the property developer that is the building’s landlord, is to turn the site into luxury flats. It declined to comment.
Mr Linskey is gloomy about the capital’s changes. “I love London. I’m a Cockney, an endangered species.” New apartment buildings, he says, are soulless and lack any sense of community. “They’re just places for City workers to sleep.”