London black cabs: Icon rises to challenging times

The taxi service is roaring back in favour, much to the delight of the purists

By Prasun Sonwalkar

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Sat 21 May 2022, 8:58 PM

It was a freezing night in January 1995, when I first encountered a London black cab, long before the era of global positioning system (GPS), or digital maps on mobiles. My flight to Heathrow had landed late. I had reached the King’s Cross station to catch the last train to Cambridge but missed it by a few minutes. Close to midnight, shivering and being new to London, the only option was to make my way to a friend’s place in Hampstead to crash for the night. I had large paper maps of Britain and London, tucked closely into a folder. I took out the London map from deep inside the luggage and carried it to the only taxi standing outside the station, the driver busy reading the day’s evening tabloid.

In my anxious state, I unfolded the map to show him my destination, but he shot back in a friendly growl: “Just tell me where you want to go, mite”. I told him the road, but there were two roads with the same name in London. Which one, he asked, and after more mumbling in my confused state, I mentioned Hampstead. “Ah, fine, jump right in”, he said, and within 20 minutes I was at my friend’s door, pleasantly surprised at the driver’s way around town without even a cursory look at my map; he didn’t have one, I later learnt why.

Since then, I have used the black cab numerous times, always marvelling at the roomy space inside, its distinctive design and the driver’s knowledge of the capital’s complex roads. The cab — it was voted the most iconic piece of London’s transport design in 2015 — is also available across Britain and in countries such as Singapore, China, Romania, South Africa, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. The image of the black cab is as quintessentially British as the Houses of Parliament, the Union flag, red phone boxes or the Big Ben; for most tourists and visitors, it is the first thing they come across upon their arrival.

But it is only in London that the cab drivers need to pass a rigorous test called “Knowledge of London” before they could obtain a licence to drive.

The test is almost like completing an undergraduate degree over three to four years, costing nearly £10,000 (Dh45, 425). Driver-students must learn and memorise thousands of roads along 320 routes (known as runs) and thousands more points of interest within around six-mile (9.6-kilometre) radius of Charing Cross. The points include landmarks such as clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, stations, and historic buildings. The pass rates after written and practical tests are usually less than 50 per cent, but those that manage to pass know that Londoners appreciate their achievement.

The backstory

The story goes that the test was introduced in 1865 after the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Hundreds of thousands of people from across Britain and the British Empire visited the event, but many complained to the authorities just how bad their journeys to the venue had been, because cabmen (mainly horse-driven taxis then) did not know the route. What was called for was a system that could test the cabmen’s knowledge of the principal streets, squares, and public buildings. Transport for London (TfL), the public body responsible for the capital’s transport, said the test is still very much an integral part of becoming a London taxi driver, with nearly 1,000 students currently working towards it.

Helen Chapman, TfL’s director of Licencing, Regulation and Charging, said: “London’s black cabs are woven into the historical fabric of the capital. The iconic Knowledge (test) has for more than 150 years produced some of the most skilled taxi drivers in the world. You name your destination, and they will instantly know how to get you there. Taxis continue to stay modern and relevant with a 100 per cent accessible fleet and more than a third of all vehicles are now zero emission capable and rising. It is pleasing to see the number of licenced taxis increasing after a fall in the pandemic and from what we are hearing from the industry, the trade is thriving again.”

TfL’s managers are considering updating the tough test considering new technology, but there are no plans to make it easier. There have been calls to scrap it, because some believe it is an entry barrier to new drivers in an age when satellite navigation (satnav) and digital maps on mobiles make navigation easy. There are cab drivers who passed the test years ago, but retain close knowledge of London, something that has sparked recent interest among medical researchers.

Cabbies’ brains under lens

A team at University College London (UCL) has been studying cab drivers’ brains to explore whether they could uncover clues to help understand Alzheimer’s disease. The focus is on a specific part of the brain — the hippocampus — that is involved in memory.

Lead researcher Hugo Spiers of UCL’s Psychology & Language Sciences hoped the results would help develop diagnostics for the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s: “We know from previous research that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers’ brains are larger than average, and that this is also an area that shrinks in people with Alzheimer’s disease. We hope that taxi drivers could help us learn more about how the hippocampus helps us to navigate, which could provide new insights into how this part of the brain is involved in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.”

Comes of age

London’s taxi service evolved from horse-driven carriages (hackney) to motorised vehicles as technology advanced, with the first electric vehicle introduced in 1897. The black cab has been manufactured by various companies since the early 20th century, including Renault, Fiat, Austin, Peugeot, Ford, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz. Coventry in the Midlands was for long the production base of Austin FX3: the first model of what came to be known as the classic London black cab. Carbodies, the company that produced the vehicles, went through some mergers, until it ceased production in 2017. The FX3 was the model for generations of cabs, which retained the black colour for a reason: until 1948, taxis were produced in various colours, but the FX3 was produced in black as standard, with buyers having to pay extra for special colours; operators who bought many vehicles for their fleet, the extra cost was a bit much, and preferred to stay with the standard black colour. Today the cabs come in various colours, some display advertising.

The black cab was once the only taxi service in London, but now operates in competition with rider-apps such as Uber and Ola, besides needing changes demanded by environment concerns and restrictions imposed by ultra-low pollution zones in the capital. Black cabs older than 15 years are not allowed to operate, while others need to transition to electronic and green technology, imposing new costs, but also benefiting from a multi-million-pound package from the mayor of London. Drivers and owners of black cabs staged demonstrations after Uber began operations in 2012, but after protracted rows over drivers’ rights and licensing, it was granted a new licence in March for two and a half years. The black cabs have also scaled up their operations, now available as ever to customers to hail on streets, in taxi ranks at London airports, train and bus stations, but also through the Gett app, allowing cashless payments.

A growing demand

In April, the London Electric Vehicle Co. (LEVC), a wholly owned subsidiary of China’s Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., announced the 5,000th sale of its TX model since the vehicles debuted in 2018. The TX comprises a third of London’s licenced black cabs; nearly 50 electric-powered cabs join the fleet each week. Its features include an easy-to-use, integral fold-down ramp with extension that is designed with a shallow angle for ease of access and departure; a wheelchair retention system that holds wheelchairs firm and secure during transit; a swivel seat to assist people with reduced mobility; and an adjustable centre rear seat belt harness to suit younger and smaller passengers.

The scale of London’s taxi services has expanded with growing demand. Latest TfL figures show that there are 19,342 black cab drivers, while private taxi drivers number 99,044. The number of licenced black cabs is 14,802, while private taxis number 81,908, and there are 1,684 private hire operators. The number of black cabs has dwindled from the high of 21,876 in 2013-14, but their numbers have increased since the pandemic low of 13,409 in March 2021. The pandemic hit the taxi sector particularly hard, with drivers reporting zero business as they drove across deserted streets of central London and otherwise busy areas during lockdowns. Many sold their vehicles to take up other jobs, and some returned to their home countries.

In the initial stages of the pandemic, victims included several taxi drivers. Many black cabs rented by drivers were turned in and parked in fields — called ‘taxi graveyards’ or ‘fields of broken dreams’ by Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licenced Taxi Drivers Association. He said: “Many of the older vehicles that have been taken off the road, may sadly never come back. But as restrictions ease and passenger demand picks up, we should start to see confidence returning to the trade, and people who have temporarily hung up their badges to find other work or because they can’t earn enough to cover the running costs, getting their cabs back on the road”.

Debate over the Knowledge test

Concerned by the various challenges before the London icon, prominent broadcaster Piers Morgan is among those keen to save it, particularly opposing demands to scrap the Knowledge test. He said in a recent segment on Sky News: “The humble London black cab: a purring, sleek, glossy emblem of Britain, always there when you need it, safe, secure, simple. As iconic to the capital city as red buses and bowler hats; it’s in a different league…The black cabs show up, you tell the cabbie where you want to go, he or she will take you on the fastest route possible. They don’t need a fancy map or app to do it. The reason they can do so efficiently is because of the Knowledge (test) … It requires personal knowledge of 25,000 roads and 20,000 landmarks. They don’t need satellites because they’ve got the Knowledge. They are not just national treasures, they are global treasures, without any doubt the finest and best qualified cab drivers on the entire planet. But now the busybodies and an influential think-tank say the Knowledge (test) should be scrapped…This is nonsense, shameful nonsense, it must be thwarted. Black cab drivers should be deemed official, endangered species and protected accordingly. The campaign to save the black cabs starts here.”

Driver-students take the Knowledge test at various stages of life. For instance, some like Dahir Salah Abdullahi qualify even before reaching the legal driving age of 21 (he passed it at the age of 20).

Nikki, 34, continued to work for the emergency services while she studied for the test.

She said, “It has taken me four and a half years to get through the test. I wanted to do it before starting a family because it means I’ll already have the tools to work as a taxi driver after I have children. It’s all about work/life balance. I love the test. I’m a bit geeky and I didn’t realise how much I love London until I started doing the test and getting to know the city better. I have learnt so much. I say to all my friends, ‘why don’t you do it?’ But people fear the test; they say, ‘I’ll never be able to remember all that’. But, if you take it bit by bit, everything comes together. Anyone can do it. It’s all about commitment.”

But cut to May 2022 and the picture looks encouraging. The TfL has no plans to scrap the test, while business has boomed with the end of pandemic restrictions: tens of thousands of tourists flock to the capital, commuters return to office, and airports, hotels and train stations are beginning to return to pre-pandemic levels. “We’re seeing a real renaissance,” said McNamara, while Uber and other operators also report a spike in demand. The ‘taxi graveyards’ are vanishing, as drivers return to work and report much larger daily collections — “best-ever”, as a driver puts it (after passing the Knowledge test, a cab driver can make around £40,000 [Dh181,350] a year). Some apps have raised prices and cheaper fares are hard to find, so more commuters have turned to the reassuring reliability and standard pricing of black cabs. Some operators who rent out taxis say there is now a shortage of taxis and drivers — at least for now, the London icon appears safe.

More news from