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Where to, guv?
September 5, 2007 6:54 PM   Subscribe

London prides itself on having the most highly trained cab drivers in the world. Black cab drivers (as opposed to their unlicensed minicab counterparts) must pass a gruelling test of local geography known as The Knowledge. Applicants take several years to master over 300 "runs" through London, and are often seen scouring the streets on mopeds with maps on clipboards as they prepare. Knowledge Boys (and Girls), as trainees are known, practise calling over the runs with "callover" partners (Forward, Orchard Street. Right Oxford Street. Comply Marble Arch...). Passing The Knowledge requires appearing before the Public Carriage Office multiple times before obtaining a license, and has been scientifically proven to grow the cabbies' brains, findings which could help those whose memories have been damaged by stroke or trauma. The Knowledge even forms the basis of a dystopian future religion in Will Self's The Book of Dave. Naturally, London's cabbies were incensed when the Immigration Minister recently referred to them as "low-skilled".
posted by szechuan (58 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very cool. Consider that cabbies also memorize frequent traffic patterns and other time-dependent features that affect city transit times, and you've got a hell of a lot of things to memorize.
posted by anthill at 7:02 PM on September 5, 2007


This is all so they can precisely identify the shortest, quickest route, and carefully avoid it. Keeps the meter running.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:11 PM on September 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


Gotta say that the Immigration Minister is a dick for saying that.
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:14 PM on September 5, 2007


There are times when the only decent thing to do is to turn in your driver's license and start relying upon cabs.

Mr. Byrne, now is such a time.
posted by eritain at 7:26 PM on September 5, 2007


This is very interesting, thanks szechuan!
posted by amyms at 7:32 PM on September 5, 2007


The only skills required for a government minister is deflection and scandal management. It's an old X-K-Red-27 technique designed to deflect the public's attention away from this particular minister's lack of skills.
posted by disgruntled at 7:33 PM on September 5, 2007


They really should be able to save themselves half the effort, given the odds they'll ever take you South of the river...
posted by pompomtom at 7:33 PM on September 5, 2007


Those cabbies and the guys from this link from the other day should get together and compare notes!
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:34 PM on September 5, 2007


This people amaze me! (Although my companion wishes that they'd not be so chatty. I find it kinda charming myself.)
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 7:35 PM on September 5, 2007


Black cab drivers (as opposed to their unlicensed minicab counterparts) must pass a gruelling test of local geography known as The Knowledge.

That is so fucking racist.
posted by papakwanz at 8:05 PM on September 5, 2007 [9 favorites]


Neat!
posted by arcticwoman at 8:06 PM on September 5, 2007


GPS/Navigation systems are alas enabling lesser brained johnnies in the hansom cab busines. Newfangled balderdash, I say!
posted by lalochezia at 8:10 PM on September 5, 2007


Can someone explain why cab drivers spend such effort on such a job? Do they just love driving cabs? Does it pay considerably more?
posted by geoff. at 8:15 PM on September 5, 2007


Can someone explain why cab drivers spend such effort on such a job? Do they just love driving cabs? Does it pay considerably more?

It's your typical incumbency protection racket, add heaps of regulation in order to keep competition down, and rates good.
posted by delmoi at 8:39 PM on September 5, 2007


While I totally totally agree that black cabs know every inch of London and are amazing, they are ridiculously expensive, to the point of I took less than 10 in the two years I lived in London, and half of those were from the airport after an 18 hour flight. I would take a cab occasionally getting lost any day, if it were vaguely affordable.
posted by whoaali at 8:46 PM on September 5, 2007


You know what else is ridiculously expensive? Getting a cabbie who doesn't have any idea where your destination is and drives you the wrong way and by the time you've figured it out you're paying $60 for a ride that should have been less than half that. Happened to me this spring in Boston, making me wish that the incumbency racket was a little more rigorous around here, at least until GPS becomes standard issue.
posted by sy at 8:52 PM on September 5, 2007


Thanks to this post, I've got The Runs!
posted by mendel at 8:54 PM on September 5, 2007


Yeah it seems like GPS is totally disruptive - why would anyone need to memorize anymore. In fact computers can pick better routes than people, this has been shown in a recent study (can't remember where I read it). Like chess and checkers and soon poker, computers can play perfect games (and have perfect memories!). It would be interesting to compare stats with computer generated route cabbies vs old school cabbies.
posted by stbalbach at 8:55 PM on September 5, 2007


I was briefly a bicycle taxiist in London and the cab drivers hated us. We didn't need any geographical certification and we certainly didn't follow carriage laws. So, whenever I saw a taxi I knew they would try their hardest to intimidate me, nevertheless I lived.
posted by cloeburner at 8:57 PM on September 5, 2007


I found them expensive too, but not as bad as in Tokyo. London's so spread out.

Meanwhile some of our cabbies are on strike: ... At the heart of the conflict are new rules requiring all cabs to have global position systems and machines that will allow passengers to pay by credit card. Some cabbies fear that the GPS systems could be used to track their movements and that they could get stuck paying hefty fees for credit card processing. ...
posted by amberglow at 8:57 PM on September 5, 2007


oh, famous cabbie: Tony from the Up series of films
posted by amberglow at 8:59 PM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


delmoi
I think he was asking about it from the cabbie's point of view. Why do people go through all this trouble for a cab driver job? It seems like if they spent that time on education or something else they could get better jobs. Do these jobs just pay really well?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:05 PM on September 5, 2007


I wonder if the London cabbies have a feel for traffic patterns like Polynesian mariners knew currents - and whether they use similar bits of the brain?
posted by porpoise at 9:07 PM on September 5, 2007


Computers cannot yet play perfect games of chess. Wait 100 years.
posted by tss at 9:10 PM on September 5, 2007


I found them expensive too, but not as bad as in Tokyo.

Well, someone has to pay for those white gloves and automatic doors (first time I got one in Tokyo the door hit me in the knee).
posted by Burhanistan at 9:14 PM on September 5, 2007


And they give good interview.
posted by tellurian at 9:45 PM on September 5, 2007


stbalbach, A pet peeve - Computers don't learn new things on their own. Programmers have to tell them what to do... so it all depends if a programmer can know more about the state of roads/traffic in London on any given day than a career cabbie. Even with the amount of traffic cameras and traffic reports, I have a hunch that, at least in rush hour, cabbies would come out on top.
posted by anthill at 9:50 PM on September 5, 2007


Cabbies in Melbourne have GPS. Given the choice, I'd take the educated human.
posted by pompomtom at 10:34 PM on September 5, 2007


I would take GPS over an over-educated and possibly dishonest cabbie any day ... particularly if it means that the cabs become more affordable, and I start seeing a more diverse group of people driving the cabs: for a city that is healthily racially diverse, London cabbies are almost entirely white (English) males ... or for those finicky types who would like the shortest route possible and prefer educated humans, they can keep black cabs and introduce yellow ones for us poorer mortals. This, particularly in a city where the tube closes at midnight.
posted by Azaadistani at 10:52 PM on September 5, 2007


That's what minicabs are for.
posted by pompomtom at 11:01 PM on September 5, 2007


(not to say that it's an ideal solution, but in practice, it works)
posted by pompomtom at 11:01 PM on September 5, 2007


Yeah it seems like GPS is totally disruptive - why would anyone need to memorize anymore.

is gps really 100% accurate? so much other stuff is involved then just getting from a to b, construction, accidents, rush hour, short cuts, lost signal. when i was working on an ambulance, sometimes i'd get a partner that would want to use gps. usually i'd tell them to turn the damn thing off, it wasted time, lots of time. before i learned to have them turn it off it would screw things up more then anything else. fine for a roadtrip maybe, otherwise a pain in the ass in my experience.
posted by andywolf at 11:43 PM on September 5, 2007


Yes, right on, Andy. So much stuff going on in the world, even if you get a perfect GPS fix, accounting for all the other unpredictable things going on is way harder than people think.
posted by anthill at 11:54 PM on September 5, 2007


Totall Andy. GPS might work well in a modern grid city, but it's crap in the centre of London where the street layout is medieval, there are one ways and bus onlys everywhere and, of course, Thames water is digging up every other street to replace the water mains.

As a London resident, I'm telling you local knowledge beats GPS pretty much every time. But our cabs are expensive.
posted by rhymer at 1:03 AM on September 6, 2007


oh, famous cabbie: Tony from the Up series of films

That's probably true, but it also fits every stereotype of a black cab driver conversation.

"I had that in the back of my cab once..."
posted by vbfg at 1:04 AM on September 6, 2007


The first time I was in London, I didn't know how to find my hotel. What to do? I'm going to try one of those legendary black cabs, I thought. I got into the cab and said:
- Anson Road, please.
And the cabbie said:
- What?
posted by Termite at 1:34 AM on September 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


GPS just doesn't work in London. Every time I've taken a GPS-equipped minicab I've ended up on some ridiculous epic journey into the heart of darkness. Or Euston Road at 5pm.
posted by influx at 2:02 AM on September 6, 2007


I got into the cab and said:
- Anson Road, please.
And the cabbie said:
- What?


That would be because there's no Anson Road in central London. I used to live on Anson Road in Willesden Green, and there appears to be another one in Tufnell Park, but they're both miles outside of the area covered by the Knowledge. If you'd have said Willesden Green/Tufnell Park the cabbie would've got you there.
posted by influx at 2:07 AM on September 6, 2007


Is gps really 100% accurate?

It comes close, but not always good enough, and is only as good as the last map update you bought.

Problems include: one-way streets marked the wrong way on the map, (due to errors or road layout changes); No left/right turn at junctions not marked on the map; Roads (or bridges) temporarily closed due roadworks; Streets which are closed to traffic during certain hours...

All of this can completely confuse a GPS (and worse, the driver), and it can direct you down footpaths, pedestrian streets, or cycleways to recover (because they are not marked as such on the map).

Oh yes, and then partial GPS fixes (common in 'urban canyons') making the device think that you are travelling in a different direction on a nearby street right before a poorly signposted crucial intersection...

(yes, all the above have happened to me: there is nothing worse than being on a 4 lane road reaching an intersection with the GPS saying 'Turn Right', and a big 'No Right Turns' sign looming over you).

Online traffic info helps a little, and TomTom's new MapShare online map update service might improve matters (or make it worse) with users sharing updates...

Where GPS is very useful, when you know a city reasonably well, is to tell you exactly where a street is if you don't know (or where you are if you are lost!). You then take the best route to get close to it, and then the leave the last few 100m to the GPS. Just like you would use a folding map in fact, without the need to keep checking where you are.


Computers, given perfect information, may be able to plan a perfect route, but the map info will never be perfect, and the traffic info is always 'now' not what will happen in 5/10/30 mins (something a human can guess given experience -- eg avoid locations near schools at 3:30-4pm).


As for GPS avoiding cabbies overcharging, yeah right. All it takes is the cabbie to say "I know a better way", or "that road is blocked" or to program in an out-of-the-way waypoint before the destination...
posted by nielm at 2:17 AM on September 6, 2007


The way taxis operate in cities is fascinating in so many ways, not least (for my sad economist brain) that they provide a perfect experimental base for testing the income and substitution effect of an increase in wages. Would increasing fares encourage taxi drivers to drive longer hours or to go home earlier?

London cabbies also have a rabid representative association, the LTDA (flash/scaremongering). As cloeburner said, they really, really don't like the rickshaws.
posted by patricio at 2:21 AM on September 6, 2007


That would be because there's no Anson Road in central London.
posted by influx


I meant Anson Road in Tufnell Park, N7. That's two tube stops from Camden - is that too far from the area a cabbie is supposed to know? That makes the cabbies' knowledge a little less impressive than I imagined it to be. Where does The Knowledge® end?
posted by Termite at 4:53 AM on September 6, 2007


Mill lane is one of the runs on the knowledge I believe and that's in Kilburn, right next to Willesden Green. He probably couldn't understand your outrageous foreign accent.
posted by ciderwoman at 5:22 AM on September 6, 2007


Ah, London cabbies. Quite a species. They're the only bloc I know of who are entirely in favour of Boris Johnson for mayor (a story worth a Mefi post in itself... ), and because they tend to listen to the radio, have mobile phones and a flexible schedule, they're on all the talk shows.

A few weeks ago, I was in a black cab doing my usual trip from King's Cross to Holloway, and the driver got to talking about his GPS. He said that he only used it when he had to - but then as much as admitted that he had to rather a lot these days. "The older lot," he said, "they lose the knowledge a couple of months after they get GPS. I don't want to be like that.".

The one before that told me that he only did around three months a year cabbing in London over summer. The rest of the year he spent on his arse with friends in Thailand. He had to put in a couple more months a year soon, he said, so he could afford to retire for good at fifty.
posted by Devonian at 5:32 AM on September 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Apparently too many of them refuse to work nights and are retiring too early.
posted by patricio at 6:02 AM on September 6, 2007


I think I've had that same cabbie, Devonian.

Re GPS being rubbish in London: here's a case in point. From Kings College Hospital to my road in Clapham is literally one road in a straight line: Coldharbour Lane/Acre Lane/Clapham Park Road. This Saturday a friend visiting my wife and new baby in hospital offered to give me a lift home, as I was too tired to drive. She used the GPS to navigate. It took us via Kennington...

(for non-Londoners: imagine a 3:4:5 right-angle triangle. The direct route is the hypotenuse, the side the GPS avoided)

...via Kennington, where there was a huge traffic jam.

Give me what an ex- of mine used to call a "black bus" any day.
posted by Hogshead at 6:15 AM on September 6, 2007


Not mopeds. Honda 50s. Always Honda 50s.
posted by Sk4n at 6:26 AM on September 6, 2007


A single computer may not adapt well, but a network of mobile computers automatically updating a database with each trip would adapt very well to shifting road and traffic conditions and get better with each driver's innovation. A central database could start with 'The Knowledge' and then build on it every minute of the night and day.

Give that to the minicab drivers (and ambulance drivers, police officers, delivery vans, etc.) and they'll easily beat black cabs and 'The Knowledge'. Give that to the black-cab drivers and they won't need 'The Knowledge' anymore, just the ability to punch in a destination or point to it on a screen (or even let the passenger enter the destination data, look at the route on the screen, and click "OK" to approve it and start the driver).
posted by pracowity at 6:59 AM on September 6, 2007


So, how expensive are these cab rides, comparatively speaking to say, New York?
posted by mckenney at 7:48 AM on September 6, 2007


A single computer may not adapt well, but a network of mobile computers automatically updating a database with each trip would adapt very well to shifting road and traffic conditions and get better with each driver's innovation. A central database could start with 'The Knowledge' and then build on it every minute of the night and day.

And lo, SkyNet, like Tom Waits, was born in the back of a taxicab.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:44 AM on September 6, 2007


The GPS mandatory requirement for NY isn't for any real onscreen routing system, but for tracking--it's not what people have in their cars to get from place to place.

Are passengers going to use the map displayed on the screen in the back of the cab to give drivers directions to go to a location?
The map will not encourage “backseat” driving by passengers. It will only show the current location of the cab and the path the cab has traveled – no directions will be provided.
posted by amberglow at 8:57 AM on September 6, 2007


plus this too, from there at the TLC (and it's all mandatory, and there's no minimum credit/debit, so even a 3 dollar fare could be charged, with the driver/owner responsible for the fees): How much will it cost to install the system?
Fixed costs: There will be an up front cost of between $10 and $4,115 followed by a monthly service charge of between $43 and $200. The maximum total cost of ownership over a three year period depends upon the vendor and options that you choose. The maximum total could be between $2,900 and $7,200 based upon the contract between the vendors and the TLC, advertising fees may offset costs. ...

Variable credit/debit card transaction costs: Credit/debit card fees are expected to average 3.5% to 4.00%. These costs include fees for banks and vendors. On a $25 credit/debit card charge, costs will be $0.88 to $1.00.

posted by amberglow at 9:01 AM on September 6, 2007


I don't care so much about GPS just please ban those sodding TVs in the back of cabs. They are surely the most intrusive thing invented.
posted by patricio at 9:21 AM on September 6, 2007


Where to, guv?

Mornington Crescent?
posted by juv3nal at 2:00 PM on September 6, 2007


There was a television play about this in 1979 called, appropriately, The Knowledge. Apparantly it is now available once more. You would do well to get ahold of it, and not just for Nigel Hawthorne.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:10 PM on September 6, 2007


On Tottenham Court Road after midnight you're not going to get a black cab for the the proverbial love or money. It's the illegal cabs that keep London moving at night - and keeping a speeding (man and machine), unsafe, uninsured, untaxed, shared Toyota Avensis on the road 24 hours a day, is just as impressive and more taxing than 'the knowledge'.

Plus you get a faster, more eventful journey and a more realistic view of London life, with better conversation from a Sudanese working the black market than a provincial 'cockney' working the tourists.
posted by niceness at 10:40 AM on September 7, 2007


On Tottenham Court Road after midnight you're not going to get a black cab for the the proverbial love or money. It's the illegal cabs that keep London moving at night - and keeping a speeding (man and machine), unsafe, uninsured, untaxed, shared Toyota Avensis on the road 24 hours a day, is just as impressive and more taxing than 'the knowledge'.

Plus you get a faster, more eventful journey and a more realistic view of London life, with better conversation from a Sudanese working the black market than a provincial 'cockney' working the tourists.
posted by niceness at 10:40 AM on September 7, 2007


Sorry - don't know how that happened happened.
posted by niceness at 10:41 AM on September 7, 2007


at least the night buses exist (but it's impossible to get somewhere if you have to take 2 of them without stopping in Trafalgar first, i've always found)
posted by amberglow at 4:34 PM on September 7, 2007


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