Driving the dream

STAFF WRITER ZACK LONGBOY investigates the life of London’s taxi drivers,
the men and women who undergo years of training to work on London’s roads

Four years of studies. Countless facts to memorize. All ending in a comprehensive assessment, and for a few, the pride and distinction of graduation. The reward? Not a high school diploma, but a license to drive a black cab.

This intensive and thorough exam, officially called “The Knowledge,” is one of the reasons that London’s cabbies are considered the best in the world. “It’s the overall effort we put into it,” said Andrew McCarthy, who has been driving for 48 years. “That’s what makes us the best. The Knowledge? It’s very, very hard, but you take pride in doing it.”

Quality comes with a hefty price. Black cabs are among the most expensive in the world and the average fare in London costs more than double the average fare of cab rides elsewhere in the U.K., according to Transport for London.

The Knowledge consists of studying over 320 routes in the revered handbook of cabbies called The Blue Book. Prospective drivers must learn all of the 25,000 streets, riding on a moped, that are scattered within these routes. In addition they must learn approximately 20,000 landmarks and places of public interest such as pubs, police stations, Underground stations and tourist attractions. All of this must be completed before they are allowed to even touch the steering wheel of a cab.

“Taxis are an essential part of London’s transport network, filling the gaps between other forms of public transport with a door-to-door service,” said politician Peter Hulme-Cross in a report by his organization the London Assembly, a regulator group, to the mayor. “[They] get people home safely late at night, reaching parts of London not well served by bus, train or tube.”

Taxis are also the only part of the transport network fully accessible to wheelchair users making them invaluable for physically disabled tourists and residents of London.

The ability to drive is an important qualification for a taxi driver, yet a large percentage of their working days is spent waiting for a job. Though some cabbies work for eight hours, those who rent from a private company have to work for longer to pay for their cab.

With today’s smartphones and the mobile application industry that can help find taxis close by, cabbies are taking back business otherwise going to hire cars and minicabs. Competition and lower prices, as well as the fact that minicab and hire car drivers are not required to pass “The Knowledge,” has led to frosty relations between the two. “This new technology is fabulous,” McCarthy said. “It’s a god-send that has saved us cabbies from being wiped out by [companies] such as Addison Lee.”

The life of a taxi driver, although tough, has its benefits. “We have a kind of freedom.” McCarthy said with a smile. “I’ll never be a millionaire, but I do love my job.”