I was born in London, and although I no longer live there (having swapped the rat race for a life of rural seclusion) I am a regular business visitor. Unsurprisingly then, I tend to travel a lot by the good old London Black Cab. While more expensive than taking the tube or bus, it is a door to door service and thanks to the knowledge of the London Cabbie, it is also often much quicker.
Outside of the capital, not a lot of people are aware that in order to earn your license to operate a London Black Cab, the taxi driver has to pass a grueling examination known as ‘The Knowledge’ which involves memorizing every street and location of public buildings within a six mile radius of Charing Cross railway station. On top of this, they have to know some 320 specified routes through the city that include all the points of interest within a quarter of a mile of the endpoint, and know this off by heart. Think that is tough enough, well there is more: all the major routes in and out of the London suburbs need to be memorized as well. And to pass The Knowledge, and get that coveted license, they have to pass a rigorous exam which includes reciting a precise route from any two points that the examiner fancies. No wonder it can take at least 3 years to pass, and often much longer. If you see people on scooters with a clipboard and map attached to the handlebars driving around London, chances are they are doing The Knowledge training. Driving around, memorizing all the one-way streets, no right turns, landmarks and street names.
However, in this day and age, why do they bother? After all, GPS based SatNav systems are cheap and plentiful and know all this stuff without requiring you to look like the world’s oldest pizza delivery boy. The private taxi companies, known as minicabs in the UK, have long since realized this. The biggest and most successful firms all have SatNav in their cars, yet according to the London Taxi Drivers’ Association less than 5% of Black Cab drivers are using similar. The ones most likely to will be those who do longer, out of town, airport runs for example.
Yet I cannot help but think those London cabbies have it right: they know the streets better than just about any SatNav device I have ever used. They don’t try and drive the wrong way up a one way street, they don’t think they should turn left even when it is obvious the car isn’t going to fit down that alleyway, and they don’t get stumped when a roundabout has been constructed that isn’t yet on the map. More importantly, and this includes even the new breed of device with traffic reporting built in, they don’t know instinctively to avoid a certain street at a certain time because a different route will always be quicker. What’s more, they don’t know that you can get from A to B quicker via C today because of the road works and temporary traffic lights that went up at 9am.
The truth is that there is more to getting around a city like London than simply knowing the street map, local knowledge is King. And if someone produced a SatNav system with mapping that was up to The Knowledge standard I would not only buy it, I would invest in the company as well. As long as it does not start lecturing me about politics and sport along the way, that is.