The Life of a London Taxi Driver
For a glimpse into the life of a London taxi driver, Executive Travel flagged down Alan Fisher, who drives a cab in London five days a week and is the editor of CallSign, the internal magazine for Dial-a-Cab, with a fleet of 2,500 cabs in London.
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE?
The Knowledge is tough. I know some guys that took over four years to complete it. Knowing that you had to go out most days on a small motorbike [to learn the city] regardless of whether it was summer or winter—and winters can be pretty miserable in London—doesn’t exactly cheer you up! But London is a big city, and to become a licensed taxi driver in the U.K. capital means knowing not just where every one of the 67,544 streets are, together with every building in every one of those streets, but at the drop of a hat, how you get from one to another! How do you prepare? You can’t, because you could never believe how tough it is and also how it completely dominates your life. I know several drivers whose marriages or relationships never survived the strain the Knowledge puts you—and those around you—under.
HAS THE CONGESTION TAX CUT DOWN ON TRAFFIC AND MADE YOUR LIFE ANY EASIER?
It certainly made a difference when first introduced, with traffic down by an estimated 15 percent, but it has gradually crept up since then—and while traffic is possibly better than before congestion charging, I’m not too sure whether the difference is that noticeable any more.
WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST CHANGES IN YOUR JOB IN THE LAST FIVE YEARS?
Undoubtedly, the biggest change has been the licensing of cars as private-hire cabs. Unlike regular taxis that can be hailed in the street, private hire can only be called via the phone or by going to their office. Prior to licensing, their record of attacks against women and other crimes was appalling, but while licensing and the accountability that comes with it has improved that, their record still is a long way behind that of taxi drivers. The difference is that no taxi driver would sacrifice up to four years on the Knowledge to be involved with anything outside of the law, but private-hire drivers have just a minor test, so if they lose their license, then it isn’t the end of the world.
WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE EXECUTIVE TRAVEL READERS ABOUT TAKING TAXIS IN LONDON?
That’s an easy one! When you use a London taxi, don’t assume that [the driver] is anything but an expert. If you are following the route on a map and he seems to be diverting from it, then there will be a good reason. But the biggest tip I can give is to not, under any circumstances, accept a ride from someone with a car who pulls up alongside you and claims to be a taxi driver but patently isn’t. You will be ripped off.
DID YOU KNOW…?
- Traditional black cabs require enough headroom for a gentleman wearing a top hat.
- The cab that most people associate with London taxis was the Austin FX-4, introduced in 1959. The model, with many modifications over the years, remained in production until 1997, making it one of the longest produced vehicles in history.
- Recent research has shown that London cabbies’ brains may enlarge to help store the detailed information necessary for navigating the city efficiently. Taxi drivers given brain scans by scientists at University College London had a larger hippocampus than other participants in the study. The hippocampus is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals. The scientists also found that part of the hippocampus grew larger as the taxi drivers spent more time in the job.
- London cabs are now painted any color, not just black.