Do You Care How Knowledgable Your Taxi Driver Is?

Filed Under: Travel, Uber

Over the past several years, Uber has had a huge impact on the taxi industry. Taxis previously had a monopoly and did absolutely nothing to innovative, and now they’re paying the price for it.

While some of Uber’s techniques are questionable, the reason I’m not sad about seeing much of the taxi industry shrink is because I just got so used to bad service, dirty cars, rude drivers, etc. And that’s not the case with Uber.

London is a bit unique, though. Their taxi drivers actually go through outrageous training, and have to earn a “Green Badge.” How much knowledge is required to become a cabbie in London? Via The Daily Mail:

In order to get a Green Badge and drive one of London’s famous black cabs, drivers must pass The Knowledge, which involves memorising London’s 25,000 streets and is thought to be one of the world’s toughest tests.

Sat navs are forbidden, and drivers are expected to instantly know the street name, hotel or landmark given to them by the customer, and the shortest route possible to reach it. 

That’s right, you have to memorize every street in London, and know how to get from anywhere to anywhere as quickly as possible. That’s sort of obscene.

Some even compare it to becoming a doctor:

Mr Linksey said: ‘People don’t appreciate the skill that goes into driving a cab. You don’t decide you want to be a doctor and turn up at a hospital’

The context of all this is that London’s largest taxi training school is closing next month, in no small part due to the decreased demand for taxis and the increased demand for Uber.

‘Demand has gone down since Uber arrived,’ the Knowledge Point’s founder Malcolm Linskey, 70, told The Financial Times. ‘Usually we have 350 students enrolling a year, last year it was 200.’


I sort of have conflicting thoughts on this:

  • The amount of knowledge London taxi drivers have is impressive
  • On one hand, I can appreciate that unlike in other cities, London taxi drivers actually take pride in what they do, and are “professionals”
  • On the other hand, consumers are directly paying for this, as the schooling doesn’t just take time, but also costs a significant amount of money
  • London taxis are expensive; before Uber I always just took public transportation, while I’ll now often take Uber in London

The concept of knowing every street just seems outdated to me. The whole reason the taxi industry is being hit so hard is because they didn’t keep up with the times. It’s great that the London taxi drivers know every street there is, but ultimately I’d much rather have a driver use a nav system when there’s traffic.

Interestingly Russel Brand went on a tirade a while back, comparing London taxi drivers to Uber drivers. If you have some brain cells to spare, it’s an amusing video:

Bottom line

The taxi industry is where it is due to a lack of willingness to adopt new technology and innovation. While it might be a harsh reality, I think the London taxi industry perhaps stands more to gain by lowering prices, decreasing schooling, and increasing use of technology. That might get them further than shaking their heads at Uber’s success and talking about how they’re more educated. Because most consumers (including me) aren’t willing to pay for that.

Do you care how knowledgable your driver is, or are you happy with them just entering the destination into the nav and following the directions? Are you willing to pay a premium for a more knowledgable driver?

  1. London is the only city in the world where my preference is for taxis over Uber. I travel with a large suitcase and don’t want to deal with the hassle of having to drag it through public transportation.

    The few occasions I’ve used Uber in London were horrible, particularly because I had to take them for long-ish distances (Canary Wharf to Mayfair).

    The drivers were constantly glued to their phones trying to figure out the route. I ended up having to help navigate at some points. This is increasingly the norm in the States, so it doesn’t matter much here, but in London it’s nice to be able to say “Take me to this obscure cul-de-sac with two offices on it” and just have the driver get me there with no issues.

  2. well, the true story behind the school’s closing is that they’re being evicted to make way for new luxury condos — a much bigger problem in london than the pervasiveness of uber.

    i can’t speak with as much authority on london as new york. the black cabs i’ve taken in ldn over the years have all been driven by courteous individuals who added a nice bit of personality to the ride. that said, the fares have been outrageous (80 quid from heathrow to ealing on boxing day was perhaps the worst) and all the minicabs and ubers i’ve had whose drivers relied on satnav got me there in equally expedient times.

    now, in new york, the ubiquity of uber cars and new drivers has been astonishing. and seeing as i take 100 percent of my cab rides with uber now, i have a pretty broad cross-section of drivers i’ve experienced. i’d say about 20 percent of them are brand new at the job, have little to no knowledge of the best routes and depend almost exclusively on turn by turn directions. it can be a little frustrating when you have to dictate certain small behaviors that experienced yellow cabbies would know instinctively. but overall, it’s not been a tremendous issue.

    at the end of the day, i’d prefer a safe and courteous ride over all. if the driver has to rely on GPS, so be it.

  3. @Lucky

    Ben, this is a tough one for me, too. I’ve spent probably 10% of my time in the UK in the last 20 years and have always been stunningly impressed by the knowledge and professionalism of even your ‘average’ London cabbie. And, generally, you get a good history and economics lesson conducted by said cabbie on your trip back to Kensington after the meeting. And, the London black cabs were the first to embrace e-payments, electronic-cab-request, etc… they’ve always been leaders, not laggards.

    However I, like you, have zero sympathy for the US taxi industry that’s resisted system and service upgrades… I use DC area airports a lot, where each airport authority seems to have (for an under the table fee, I’m sure) granted a single cab company a monopoly on airport pick-ups. And, 90% of the cabbies working for said cab companies seem to have zero English language skills… until you hop in the cab and ask them to go from Dulles to Reston, say, or National to Pentagon City. Then, suddenly, you get a barrage of insults and complaints about a “short ride” in very profane English. My response: “Hey, D-bag, you are the one with the monopoly here… take the short ride”. I’ve had them just refuse a short trip.

    So, yeah, in those instances I LOVE Uber (and Lyft even more) since I’ve NEVER encountered an unhappy Uber driver. I tip liberally and no one complains about the short rides when I need them. Win-WIN!

    Ideally, Uber and the London cabbies would find a way to blend the Uber UI and tracking with the London Black Cab professionalism. I know, in my dreams…

  4. @John:

    “This is increasingly the norm in the States”

    No kidding. Had to help my rideshare driver get to the airport when he started to screw up the routing trying shortcuts (that I wouldn’t have taken in some cases, or that were a bit tricky unless you knew what you were doing… and I didn’t suggest them). He ended up having to turn off the ride early because he botched it so badly, I didn’t rate him or tip him.

    And hey, apparently people get what they pay for…

    Not that the cab industry’s all that (it isn’t). But sometimes we lose things while encouraging “disruption”.

  5. Yes, I’m absolutely willing to pay more for a black cab. I don’t like getting into a random Prius, and I’m never sure whether the driver is properly trained/licensed or has been driving all night to pay the bills. I’ve been in many minicabs where the driver has slavishly follow their sat nav, whereas black cab drivers actually know where they’re going. And black cabs are allowed to use bus lanes, making them significantly quicker in traffic.

  6. The problem with Uber is that they always take slow and congested routes. Google is simply not accurate enough to know the best routes in London. But at half the price, adding 5 or 10 minutes per journey is still probably worth it.

  7. Cabdriver from the video: “I can take you there and AFTER I’ve taken you there, we can negotiate the price of the ride”….. But goodness, let’s not give our money to the bloodsucking parasites that are uber drivers who have a clear, reasonable pricing.

    Sure, in some cases, I would use black cabs in London, but the vast knowledge of those cab drivers would usually not be important – most of the time I just want to get from point A to point B, something anyone with a gps will be able to do efficiently.

  8. I have always been impressed with the London Black Cabs, although I haven’t been to London since the introduction of uber.

    I have noticed recently, in San Francisco, the uber drivers (especially uberX) have had no idea of the general location or landmarks, and are 100% reliant on their GPS, and not able to get anywhere without following it blindly. A properly trained driver, or someone who has driven in a particular location is always preferable to someone just blindly following the GPS, as it is not always the fasted or best route.

  9. Well I’m personally not remotely impressed by “the knowledge”. It doesn’t require any skill, just lots of memorising.

    Almost as pointless as the people who memorise the bible/qur’an etc. It takes a long time to achieve, but it’s rather pointless for the vast majority of journeys.

  10. The NY Times had a very long, but fascinating article about The Knowledge in 2014. Sure, it’s memorization, but an impressive amount (and not just of streets).

    “One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese. It’s on the facade of a building in Philpot Lane, on the corner of Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge.”

    “At Knowledge Point, McCabe explained the quirks of various examiners. There was Mr. Gunning, who favors runs with difficult strictures: He likes to impose road closures, or to ask candidates to do runs while steering clear of streets with traffic lights. Ms. Gerald, one of two women examiners, specializes in runs with lots of novel points. “There’s another examiner, Mr. Hall,” McCabe said. “He’s a tricky one. They have a nickname for him. Everyone calls him the Smiling Assassin.””

  11. London is the only place where I will only use the taxi service. I think London cabbies are fabulous, so knowledgable. You don’t even have to have an address, can simply tell them a hotel name and they get you there. They are an example of a professionally trained taxi service.

    I’m becoming more disillusioned with Uber. Here in SF most of the time the drivers in UberX have no idea of where anything is and they totally rely on their the Ways system or whatever rubbish program it is that they use. We live on a one way street and the Ways system always sends them past the first turn to our address and adds on a complicated extended trip. GPS is not the same as knowing where to go. A London cabbie will know the short cuts without looking at a machine.

  12. As far as I’m aware the cost associated with learning the knowledge of London is not in anyway built into metered fares. If a person decides to learn how to become a proper professional taxi driver at no expense to the passenger then where’s the value in replacing a tried and tested learning system?

  13. I appreciate having a driver that doesn’t have to rely on GPS to get me to my destination – primarily because major cities like London and NYC are so congested it helps if you know the back streets that a GPS simply doesn’t consider. I also appreciate the fact that I can get into a black cab in London, tell the driver the name of the hotel and away we go. In cities like NYC, if you take a yellow cab, you can forget relying on the hotel name or even the address…if you don’t know the two cross streets you get attitude from the driver (at least in my experience) – makes me appreciate the London cabs all that much more.

  14. The Daily Mail and Russell Brand as your reference points Ben? That’s a really properly balanced perspective on the UK – but hey at least you like London Taxis…..

  15. No amount of “knowledge” will tell you the current traffic conditions. This is why I Waze every trip I take even in my hometown. I think the notion that you could know “how to get there” is very outdated, and why Uber will ultimately win out over static-knowledge systems.

  16. I’m with the others — London taxi drivers are in another league above everyone else. After that, especially in the major US cities, Uber drivers, even ones fresh off the boat and depending upon the GPS the whole time, are often better than the taxi mafias.

    There wasn’t anything preventing the US taxi companies from coming up with an Uber-like app for their businesses. Now that someone’s built a better mousetrap, they shouldn’t be surprised that people love it. Ask Kodak how clinging to photographic film instead of digital worked out for them…

  17. As a driver, I do prefer to use Google Maps over my own memory of areas when I’m driving passengers around. Having live traffic updates in the map can allow me to make decisions on what routes to take, and if I choose to go off route, the app can usually recalculate and reroute around my route change within 15 seconds. GPS’s main fault in my opinion is in dense areas like apartment and shopping complexes where GPS’ usual 50ft accuracy radius can create havoc for trying to find the right apartment building or suite in a shopping center. At that point, fellow drivers, it’s time to stop the GPS and use your eyeballs. Passengers, once we get close to the destination, please let me know where you’d like to be dropped off. I prefer to let out passengers as close to the entrance to their building as legally possible, (especially in cold weather or where they have a lot of luggage to carry!) so a little guidance is appreciated (though I’ll ask anyway.)

    If you’re my passenger and you’d like for me to take a different route, please feel free to ask! I’ll defer to your navigation if you’d like to go a different way.

    -Ed (Promo codes for discounts: Fasten: BE7222, Lyft: Bubba29879, Uber: EdwardB6343ue )

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