Black Taxis Unpacked: Have you got The Knowledge?

Black taxiWith Uber on the up and the imminent arrival of driverless cars; Radio 4 recently asked What’s the point of…The London Black Cab? and that got us thinking. Black taxis are as British as Big Ben and double decker buses, but how much do you really know about them? And what does the future hold for the black cab?

The first Hackney Carriages were licenced back in 1838 taking their name from a French word ‘hacquenee’ describing a breed of horse suited to pull coaches, rather than the Borough of Hackney as is commonly misunderstood. Popular myth has it that a German aristocrat named Baron von Thurn und Taxis invented the taximeter which became compulsory in 1907. A more likely version is that another German named Wilhelm Bruhn invented the taximeter and took the name from the word ‘taxe’ meaning to ‘charge’.

Whatever the truth the modern taxi had begun its journey and by the end of the century black cabs had city centre transport sewn-up. Black taxis soon became part of the nation’s heritage and a recognisable cultural icon. However, they were also recognised as being some of the most expensive taxis on the planet. With advances in navigation technology cabbies knew something was bound to change, but they didn’t see Uber coming.

The ‘ride hailing app’ has given taxi drivers a bumpy ride and sparked demonstrations across the continent. Armed with a SatNav, and with significantly lower overheads, Uber drivers can pick up fares for a fraction of the cost of a black cab. Mobile technology means that users can choose a driver in the local area and Black Taxis simply can’t compete. Uber is currently operating in a handful of British cities, but there are plans to roll out the service across the country. So should traditional taxi drivers be scared?

Of course there’s much more to a journey in a black cab than simply getting from A-B. Firstly they’ve got ‘The Knowledge’ a hard-won and encyclopaedic mental map of the capital’s streets. Ask a cab driver what’s the point of The Knowledge when we’ve got navigation software on our phones, and they’ll tell you tests show cabbies outsmart smartphones nine times out of ten.

It takes cabbies up to four years to learn The Knowledge which is a considerable investment and one they don’t want to risk losing. It also means black taxi drivers have a great deal of experience behind the wheel, which might not be true for all Uber drivers. Safety is a serious concern as voiced by the Deputy Mayor for London Transport Val Shawcross who commented “We need to raise the standard of the minicab industry, in particular there’s a concern about drivers who only drive one or two times a week and those who are new to the industry”.

Then there’s a question mark over taxi insurance, with stories of wannabe Uber drivers taking out specialist cover to be accepted, then cancelling within the statutory two-week ‘cooling off’ period. Whether such tales are true can’t be proved, but given human nature it wouldn’t be unthinkable.

Uber users would say that added safety and security are a hefty price to pay for higher fares, but there are other benefits to riding in a black cab. There’s the convenience of hailing a cab on the street or picking up one from a railway station taxi rank, not to mention using bus lanes when the city is gridlocked.

In truth there’s room for both black cabs and Uber in the city’s streets and taxi meters are likely to be running for some time to come.


Leave a Reply