The ‘knowledge’ vrs Sat Nav’s

Can local knowledge or a taxi driver ever be beaten by a sat nav’s computer software?


On the very rare occasion I venture further south than Gods own county of Lancashire and pay a visit to London, two iconic modes of transport are very apparent; the red bus and the black cab. London taxi drivers are as famous (well nearly) as the cabs they drive. This is in no small part down to their in-depth knowledge of our capital city and their ability in taking visitors and locals alike to their desired destination amid the congestion and chaos that you find when travelling through London’s streets.

I was discussing my aversion to the Sat Nav with someone just the other day and it was put to me, why, given all the modern technology we have at our disposal do the London Taxi drivers bother with “The London Knowledge”. I hope I convinced the questioner why the KOL is relevant but it did prompt me to take a more in depth look at just what is involved in gaining the knowledge.

So what is the knowledge? A taxi driver is required to be able to decide routes immediately in response to a passenger’s request or traffic conditions, rather than stopping to look at a map, relying on a sat nav or asking a controller by radio. Consequently, the ‘Knowledge’ is the in-depth study of a number of pre-set London street routes and places of interest that taxi drivers in London must complete to obtain a licence to operate a black cab.

It was initiated in 1865, and has changed little since. It is claimed that the training involved ensures that London taxi drivers are experts on London, and have an intimate knowledge of the city. It is said to be the world’s most demanding training course for taxi drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve attempts at the final test, which  after all the preparation can take up to 3 years  to pass the examination.

The 320 main (standard) routes, or ‘runs’, through central London of the Knowledge are contained within the ‘Guide to Learning the Knowledge of London ‘ the “Blue Book”. In all some 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross are covered along with the major arterial routes through the rest of London. This is an area of approximately 113 square miles and has to be learnt in detail.

A  prospective taxi driver must learn these routes, as well as the ‘points of interest’ along those routes including streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, historic buildings and McDonalds, the latter being very important due to the closure of so many public toilets. The Knowledge includes such details as the order of theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, or the names and order of the side streets and traffic signals passed on a route.

“Knowledge boys and girls”. During training, would-be cabbies, known as Knowledge boys or Knowledge girls, usually follow these routes around London on a motor scooter, and can be identified by the clipboard fixed to the handlebars and showing details of the streets to be learned that day. Taxi-driver applicants must be ‘of good character’, meeting strict requirements regarding any criminal record, then first pass a written test which qualifies them to make an ‘appearance’.

A normal appearance would consists of 4 runs and at the end the examiner will mark you, deducting marks for not knowing the start and finish points asked, hesitation whilst reciting the run, directness of the journey taken and correctness of road names. At the end of the appearance the candidate will be given a grade according to their answers. AA (12 points)- Excellent, A (6 points)- Very good, B (4points)- Good, C (3 points)- Satisfactory , D (0 points)- Unsatisfactory.

Over the course of 7 appearances the candidate must score 12 points. If he/she is successful, they then advance to the next level, where the time period between appearances is decreased to 28 days. If successful at the 28 day level, the candidate will then advance to 21 days between appearances.

If they are unsuccessful and do not achieve 12 points from 7 appearances, then they must repeat the stage again. If they are unsuccessful twice at any particular stage, they will be required to return to the previous stage again.

During the 21 day appearance stage, the candidate must also pass an enhanced driving test in a taxi, and be able to securely and safely embark and disembark a wheelchair bound passenger to/from the taxi.

As the candidate progresses through the ‘knowledge’, the difficulty of the points asked and complexity of the journeys (anywhere across London) will increase until finally they acquire 12 points at the 21 day appearance stage. This is known as the ‘req’ or requisition for badge. But this is not the end of it.

Just when you thought you’d made it, the candidate is then required to learn a series of runs that extend beyond the six mile radius of Charing Cross, into the suburbs of London (known in knowledge parlance as the ‘burbs’). Although not as detailed as the knowledge, with  just over 140 routes,  the arterial roads are to be learned and committed to memory,  it is still no mean feat. Once this has been achieved to the standard required, the candidate is awarded a Hackney Carriage Licence and London driver’s coveted ‘Green Badge’. This will allow him or her to ply for hire on the streets as a world renowned London Black Cab Driver.

So for all those people who ask if it is worth learning the taxi knowledge the answer is absolutely of course it is, and I for one hope it is still around for at least another 149 years.

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