Expat Learnings

Things I’ve learned as an American expat in the UKoGBaNI #28

Black cabs

Black cab drivers must transport passengers without mapping tools, among other things.

My friend Sara once complained to me that taxi drivers in the US generally have no clue as to where anything is or how to get there, not even in major US cities like New York City. I think this complaint took place when she was due to meet our other friend, Jessi, and I in Prague and was concerned about a random taxi driver being able to find our Airbnb. I remember wondering why she was so paranoid about the taxi situation.

Below is a photo of Sara, Jessi, and I in Prague. We were obviously not sober in this photo and I threatened both Sara and Jessi never to post this photo publicly but I’m feeling a bit adventurous today, so here goes.

We are good friends which means Sara and Jessi will still be my friends after they see this post.

We are all wearing SupTownStumble t-shirts (a bar crawl I used to co-organized with my sister, Tessa, and our friend, Heidi) but I can’t remember why. Perhaps because we had just done a pub crawl of our own in Prague or perhaps we were just that drunk. I mean, moments before this photo, I grabbed a jacket out of a garbage bin for some ungodly reason.

Prague essentials: A can of beer, a jar of pickles and a dirty jacket pulled from a garbage bin.

Moments after the jacket incident, we entered a restaurant and I demanded the bartender fill a bag with ice so that we’d have ice for our afterparty in our Airbnb. He reluctantly obliged for the price of like 5 euro or something ridiculous like that.

Back to the US taxi story…

Sara went on to explain that the situation in the US was so bad that she had started bringing printed navigation instructions with her to give to her various taxi drivers. I was totally dumbfounded by this because everywhere Peter and I have traveled in Europe, the taxi drivers have been able to get us to our destination either by name (i.e. the W St. Petersburg) or street address.

The taxi situation is very different in London than it is in the US. Taxi drivers – specifically black cab drivers – must undergo extensive training (known as “the Knowledge”) where they are required to memorize a minimum of 320 routes along with sites, cemeteries, parks, open spaces, restaurants, historic buildings, and a whole slew of other stuff. Most impressively, they are not allowed to consult maps, GPS navigation units or consult a radio controller when transporting passengers.

In London, only hackney carriages (known informally as black cabs though they are not always black) can be hired directly off of the street. The name “hackney carriages” goes back to the early 16th century when taxicab service was done via horse-drawn hackney carriages.

Black cabs come in various colors and are sometimes wrapped in various adverts.

There is no cap on the number of black cab drivers in London and the black cab industry is an extension of Transport for London, the same organization which manages the London Underground and Overground, London Buses, and much more.

During training, Knowledge boys and Knowledge girls, as they are known, memorize the routes outlined in “The Knowledge” (officially known as the Guide to Learning the Knowledge of London) by studying the guide and driving around on scooters with maps attached to clipboards which are attached to the handlebar of the scooters. It is said that there are 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, all of which are covered in the guide along with major arterial routes around the rest of London.

Knowledge boys and girls must be of good character and meet strict requirements regarding any criminal record. The first step in becoming a black cab driver is to pass a written test. The second step is to make and pass at least 12 “appearances” which are real-time tests where they must identify the quickest and most sensible route from point A to point B (as requested by the examiner) without looking at a map. For every appearance, the Knowledge boy or girl must recite the names of the roads used, when they cross intersections, use roundabouts and make turns, and note what is alongside the roads at various points on the route.

Basically, if you ever need directions, pop your head into the passenger window of a black cab and inquire, or rather, enquire.

In closing, treat black cab drivers with the respect they deserve and chat with them during your journey. Drivers are generally full of stories and knowledge about the city along with current events and they are probably the nicest people you’ll meet in London.

For the next learning in my Expat Learnings mini series, go here. Alternatively, go here to read this mini-series from the beginning.

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