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London is widely seen to have the best taxi drivers in the world. This is not an accident.

Before you get a hack license in London, you must memorize all 25,000 streets in central London, as well as all the hotels, theaters, or other landmarks on these streets. It takes years.

I’ve long been fascinated by the subject of memory systems, and in particular about ” The Knowledge ” that London’s cabbies have had since 1884.

Yesterday, the NY Times had an article on The Knowledge, which is getting quite a reaction. It may be the hardest test of any kind in the world

Should this arduous system be retained in the age of GPS (Sat Nav ), which supposedly gives anyone the same ” knowledge ” of any city? I know where I stand on this one.

The origins of the Knowledge are unclear — lost in the murk of Victorian municipal history. Some trace the test’s creation to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when London’s Crystal Palace played host to hundreds of thousands of visitors. These tourists, the story goes, inundated the city with complaints about the ineptitude of its cabmen, prompting authorities to institute a more demanding licensing process. The tale may be apocryphal, but it is certain that the Knowledge was in place by 1884: City records for that year contain a reference to 1,931 applicants for the “examination as to the ‘knowledge’ [of]…principal streets and squares and public buildings.”

In 2014, in any case, the Knowledge is steeped in regimens and rituals that have been around as long as anyone can remember. Taxi-driver candidates — known as Knowledge boys and, increasingly today, Knowledge girls — are issued a copy of the so-called “Blue Book.” This guidebook contains a list of 320 “runs,” trips from Point A to Point B: Manor House Station to Gibson Square, Jubilee Gardens to Royal London Hospital, Dryburgh Road to Vicarage Crescent, etc. The candidate embarks on the Knowledge by making these runs — that is, by physically going to Manor House Station and finding the shortest route that can be legally driven to Gibson Square, and then doing the same thing 319 more times, for the other Blue Book runs.

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28 thoughts on “The Knowledge

  1. a good cab driver and a good concierge are worth their wait in gold. They are both invaluable resources. Just ask any cop, reporter, or smart business traveler.

  2. A mate of mine did the knowledge. Took him nearly three years of solid study and riding the streets of London.

    That’d send me round the twist.

  3. London cabbies can make $80,000 or more. I think that they generally own their own cars and so can be their own boss, setting their own hours.

    Of course taking the three years to study every alley in a massive city where all the roads are curved, and with a meandering river through it is a hell of a burden.

  4. Troll –

    The people I meet online.

    Paul McMahon –

    I should think so. I don’t know average earnings but black cabbies I’ve known have all had a nice home in the suburbs and haven’t been short of a quid.

    Plus there’s no shortage of them. If the earnings weren’t worth it then there’s be a shortage of recruits.

    Then you’d get a shortage of drivers, leading to a rise in earnings.

    Then you a get a rise in recruits as a response to the rise in earnings, leading to a higher supply of cabbies.

    Thus the market calibrates supply, demand and prices across time.

  5. So Pete I am happy that you support London taxi regulation, which has given your nation’s capital the best taxi drivers in the world.

  6. Phantom –

    If people want to band together to offer a premium service backed by the knowledge, that’s fine by me, as is the mini cab driver who never did the knowledge.

    The timing of this NYT piece is revealing, coming as Uber threatens to blow apart the BY taxi cartel.

    Prices of medallions are over $1million, which has been reached by the cartel and the fed’s inflation. An open market would blow apart the cartel. Hence compliant media like the NYT putting out piece on London and The Knowledge.

  7. Little known fact. There was a TV drama made for British TV in the 1970s called ‘The Knowledge’ based exactly on this. I had a little bit part in it riding a bike as a child. They never repeat it on TV. I would love to see it again.

  8. Do you think that taxi drivers without knowledge should be able to pick up fares in London, on the same basis as the best taxi drivers in the world?

  9. Yes, of course.

    Specific enough?

    The idea that the state should intervene and regulate when two adults conduct a simple, peaceful transaction like a lift is completely bizarre.

  10. I don’t think that many Londoners will agree with that.

    They have the best system, as supplemented by the minicabs.

    If you want a system like other cities where the taxi drivers don’t know anything that is a step back from where you are

  11. London is both a major tourism city and a major business center. There are many people entering the city every week who have never been there before.

    London taxis are a model of effective regulation, which largely benefits outsiders – who won’t know which cabbies are which – and which also serves to benefit the city’s business and reputation overall.

    Allowing unqualified taxi drivers to compete on the same basis as the best hacks in the world will only serve to drive all standards down.

    I’m not opposed to your minicabs or to Uber, either.And I don’t support caps on medallions. But I want the highest possible standards for real taxis.

    London has an almost impossibly high standard, but it works, and you should be really proud of it and you should never seek to lower the standard.

    BTW, in NYC the standard is not quite the same. A friend once caught a taxi in lower Manhattan and asked to be taken to Chinatown. The driver said ” where’s that “?

  12. I get where you’re coming from, Phantom.

    If I were to give you a lift from London to Heathrow that’d be fine. But if you were to give me 20 quid for the fuel and my time, the state should intervene and punish us for this dangerously unregulated action.

  13. No, I’d like to be sure that the driver knows his Bishopsgate from his Piccadilly.

    In some towns, like Prague, or NYC , you don’t always know what you are getting when you step into a cap.

    In London you do.

  14. Little known fact. There was a TV drama made for British TV in the 1970s called ‘The Knowledge’ based exactly on this. I had a little bit part in it riding a bike as a child. They never repeat it on TV. I would love to see it again.

    Is this the one, Colm?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_IdGAe8P5M

    If so – you’re welcome 🙂

  15. Colm, on November 11th, 2014 at 7:51 PM Said:

    Little known fact. There was a TV drama made for British TV in the 1970s called ‘The Knowledge’ based exactly on this. I had a little bit part in it riding a bike as a child. They never repeat it on TV. I would love to see it again.

    Here you Colm. Find yourself in that lot.

  16. Colm! Just watched part one…are you one of the kids in front of the high-rise apartments whipping around on bicycles? Very cool! They caught your best side 🙂

  17. Brilliant, Thanks Seimi and Dave. How dumb of me, never thought of looking for it on You Tube.

    I will check later and let you know if my scene is still in it.

  18. It’s a scary experience sitting in a London cab watching the meter run and run. About a year ago, me and her got a cab at about 10pm to take us from Trafalgar Square to Queensway. You could Boris bike that in about 20 minutes. About fifteen minutes latter we got out of the cab, £18 poorer.

  19. I made a day trip to Cleveland yesterday.

    I rode across Cleveland to a nearby suburb. The cabbie, maybe in his late fifties, had the following observations

    A lot of young professionals are moving into downtown Cleveland. Lots of old warehouses are being converted into lofts. From a base of nearly zero, ( he says ) the downtown residential population is now 12,000 and rising fast.

    ( Downtown Cleveland had been dead, but more and more you see people, good restaurants, etc. Very many young Americans who grew up in suburbs are choosing to live in city centers now. This is the cause of urban revival of American downtowns, including Brooklyn, Manhattan, Miami, Los Angeles, etc. IMO this is an entirely positive trend )

    We went past a large ArcelorMittal steel mill
    http://usa.arcelormittal.com/Our-operations/Flat/Cleveland/

    Some decades ago, this mill employed 25,000. Today, it employs 1,000 people and produces more steel than before, which is of a higher quality. ( This gets to my repeated comments on blue collar jobs. Productivity is a great thing, but the dramatic automation-driven productivity gains of the past decades means that there won’t be a dramatic blue collar jobs renaissance no matter what happens with taxes or outsourcing )

    He would like to see the Cleveland Browns win a Super Bowl in his lifetime. I hope he gets his wish.

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