Taxi Knowledge of London
Very few people get what goes into it; it's all consuming. One cabbie I spoke to said it nearly cost him his marriage; for two years, the only thing he could think about was the map. When he'd go on a date with his wife he would just be thinking about every street they passed on the way to the restaurant, and whether or not you could turn left out of them. He said it got so bad he used to watch reruns of The Bill , to see if he could spot how the roads had changed. Aside from being all consuming, the Knowledge has been getting harder.
London has never been more complex; there have never been more railway stations, more hotels, more restaurants or more points of interest a passenger may ask for. The increasing amount of cycle lanes is changing the flow of traffic and the number of restrictions on the roads, which is something people who study for the Knowledge have to know. One of the girls I interviewed had an "appearance" what the exams are called and told me she was asked "Ascot apartments" to "Sukiyaki Tei Sushi" and then "Zeigfeld Von Underbelly" to "Meat Liquor".
While the Knowledge has been getting harder, the challenges facing black cabbies have been multiplying. People make it out that there's this big Uber vs Black Cab war, and while there's certainly animosity there, it's reductive to think that is the only challenge cabbies face. The night tube, the imminent opening of Crossrail and the huge increase in cyclists have all caused fundamental changes to the city, and also to the number and type of fares cabbies get.
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As one said to me, "Once Crossrail comes in I'll never again get a fare to Heathrow. There's a pretty interesting interplay with technology in the way that Knowledge Boys and Girls study for the exams. There are a number of apps that exist which help them study for the Knowledge, and apps that help them draw the perfect routes. A lot of people use Google Maps Streetview for roads they haven't yet visited in person, to poke around and see if there are any points of interest that might come up or that might help them study.
There's an obvious irony in that, but then it's also pragmatic to use all the tools available. The Knowledge is assessed by exams called "appearances". As the name suggests, examinees go in person to the Carriage Office and sit down with an examiner in a one-on-one session. The students are expected to turn up well dressed, punctual, with their shoes shined and their hair neat.
In total it takes at least two years to pass the Knowledge because the exams are divided into three categories; a series of exams every 58 days, which if you pass then goes down to 28 days, and then 21 days. Each level gets harder, and the time you have left to learn more about the city also decreases.
If you fail more than two exams on any of the levels you get "red lined", meaning you start the series again from the start. If you've already had to restart once, you go back a series. Conquering your nerves and being able to confidently run through your routes is therefore as much a part of the Knowledge as the work done in front of the map or on the bike. The examiners all have their own personalities, and there is a lot of talk in the Knowledge schools about who is the hardest.
There are people who stand outside of the Carriage Office, where the appearances happen, who interview the students who have just come out from their exams.
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They take down the name of the examiner and the points they called that day, and these are then put onto sheets and made available at the Knowledge schools. This way, the students have a rough idea of who is calling which points that week, and then try to second guess what may or may not come up in the next exam. It's an inexact science, a 2k17 alchemy. Studying for the Knowledge changes the physical structure of the brain. Each run connects two points, with Run No. The runs aren't based on popularity but are more about blanketing the six-mile radius around Charing Cross Station that the Knowledge officially covers.
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A film and play called "The Knowledge," which follows a group of hopeful cabbies under the eye of a strict examiner, makes the point. A read through the Blue Book the name comes not from the guide's actual color, but from the fact that the police originally wrote it reveals an eye-watering list of streets, squares, gardens and gates that I've heard of: Abercorn Place to Three Kings Yard, and Shoot Up Hill yes, it's a real place to Gloucester Avenue. After living here for three years, there's just one run -- Australian High Commission to Paddington Station -- I can visualize on my own.
Moses' company also operates one of London's privately run Knowledge schools, where longtime cabbies teach strategies for completing the runs to wannabe drivers like Pearson. The school also publishes training manuals and guides.
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Learning the Knowledge is a fantastic education, Moses says. Riding a scooter through London while following a map is one of the best ways to learn the Knowledge. Class time is helpful, but the best way to learn London is to jump on a scooter and see it for yourself. You see them all over London: "Knowledge boys" and girls riding through the city with a map clipped on a board above the handlebars.
Occasionally, they'll stop at an intersection to pause and reflect before buzzing on their way. Visualizing a run is critical, Moses says, partially because it could be completely different from the other direction. In the past few years, he's also used Twitter's Periscope app to livestream runs for students who can't get out on their own.
You have to get out and feel London, you know? Pearson credits his scooter rides with pushing him beyond just reading the Blue Book. He's completed all runs and puts in extra time working in the mornings as a courier delivering blood samples. It makes you see things a lot quicker. Once you're committed to learning the Knowledge, you need to first register with Transport for London TfL , the capital's transit authority, which administers the testing process and ultimately issues a taxi driver's badge.
TfL, which also oversees private hire vehicles and refused to renew Uber's license to operate, declined to comment for this story. A phone with a GPS app helps when learning the Knowledge, but it all starts with a paper, map, markers and a magnifying glass. After applicants pass background and medical checks and are accepted into the Knowledge, they receive the Blue Book and have two years before the formal testing process must begin.
If they want, they can start the process sooner. The first step is a question multiple choice test on the Blue Book runs. Pass that and you're on to the appearances, the most intense part of the process. In each appearance, a TfL examiner asks applicants four questions about the shortest legal route between any two points in London. All answers are given orally and entirely from memory. They need to call out a run correctly to earn enough points to advance.
Tony Norris, a taxi driver for 31 years and an instructor at Sherbet, says appearances are about testing a person's character, as well. His goals are to help his students call a run correctly in an appearance and build their confidence when they face the examiner one-on-one. As he talked, Norris leaned back in his chair in between sips of tea. Though it was only 4 p. His father was a cabbie, he says, as are his two sons.
Taxi driving is in his blood. The Knowledge is a slog -- it took him two years -- but persistence is key. At the start, appearances are 56 days apart. The questions get more difficult as you advance and the time between tests drops to 28 days and then 21 days in a series of three stages. Pass the final stage, a separate appearance that tests 25 runs in the London suburbs, and you have your badge.
As most applicants also work part time while studying the Knowledge, the average time to complete the entire process is three to four years. Tackle it full time and you may be able to complete it in two years. Ultimately, there's no cap on how long you can take. Perry Coles, another Sherbet student, likens the experience to being in constant exam mode. The list of potential pitfalls in an appearance is enormous.
If you suggest an incorrect turn, misstate a street name or go the wrong way down a one-way road, you can earn a D grade, which gets you zero points. Even letting your passenger off on the wrong side of the street from their destination is a no-no. Most estimates put the dropout rate at 70 percent, but Pearson says improvement over time is as important as simply calling the route quickly. When I spoke to Pearson at Sherbet's school, he was studying for what he hoped would be his final day appearance, the next day.
The narrow classroom, which resembles a shipping container, sits next to a repair yard littered with taxi parts.
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As I entered, Pearson's eyes were locked on a large map of central London, his face frozen in intense concentration. Even though I've interrupted him, he speaks candidly. His relaxed demeanor belies the stress he's taken on.
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He'd already tried to move to the days appearances once before, only to be bumped back to the beginning of the first stage after accumulating too many D grades. As a result, he had to redo eight months of appearance time. If you mess up, you have to wait. Beyond just streets, examiners also ask you to identify major landmarks within a quarter of a mile from the start and end points of each Blue Book run.
These can include hospitals, museums, nightclubs, hotels, Underground stations and theaters -- virtually anywhere a person would want to go. Even knowing which play a West End theater is showing is fair game. The amount of information -- 25, streets and 20, landmarks -- is more than mind-boggling. It literally changes a cabbie's brain. Mick Smith, a taxi driver for 28 years, wasn't part of the test group, but he has no trouble believing the study's results. I talked to him outside a Costa Coffee at the Embankment Underground station while commuter trains to Charing Cross rumbled overhead.
Mick Smith passed the Knowledge in He used his job making deliveries for a bakery to learn London. Some are working-class guys that didn't achieve very much. But this is equivalent to studying for a degree. Smith took three and a half years to complete the Knowledge when it was administered by London's Metropolitan Police.