The Knowledge – Vital Driving Test or “Too Much of a Slog”?
“They just don’t have the knowledge,” Fiona Henderson chats away, her eyes swimming with passion for her cause whilst still fixed on the journey she is making towards King’s Cross. Not once does she hesitate, curse or brake unexpectedly; Fiona is a master of her trade.
Fiona speaks with the unfaltering flow of someone who has had this conversation before and an air of confidence that comes from a life of making small talk with strangers – indeed, it’s hard to imagine her ever having done anything else. You feel safe in Fiona’s Hackney-Carriage, a model that is mandatory for any licensed black cab driver in London. The hum and purr of the engine as she pulls away is gentle and undisturbed, not unlike a bee pollinating honey or a spider spinning its web. There’s an art to such well trained driving and it goes by the name: ‘The Knowledge.’
‘The Knowledge’ – such an equivocal yet almost definite term, one which implies you either have it or you don’t and that having it takes time, patience and intelligence. The test, aimed at ensuring that prospective taxi drivers in London know the quickest and most effective routes off by heart, was first introduced in 1865, making it something of an institution today. To the average person, the phrase means nothing, yet those who are ‘in the know’ form part of a group of individuals with supposedly unique minds: research has suggested that those who have taken the test have a larger hippocampus in their brain, resulting in a better long-term spatial memory. This ‘extra room’ provides black cabbies with the ability to remember the 25,000 street names and 320 main routes which could appear in the exam, all of which are found in the ‘Little Blue Book’ from which aspiring individuals can learn.
As she weaves her way through the disorganised mess of traffic that litters the road towards King’s Cross station, Fiona is adamant that the Knowledge should be here to stay, opposing recent Conservative plans to cut the exam. “When you see the other cab drivers that haven’t done the Knowledge, the mess that they get into is there to see, you ask anybody. They drive down one-way roads the wrong way, they get lost and they don’t know shortcuts.”
Picture London: today, it is a bustling hive of tourism, business and above all, traffic. Yet in the modern age of high speed technology and digital reality, do we really require such a potentially outdated exam as this? Fiona Henderson has a Sat Nav installed in her car, so what use does she have for the navigation software she carries in her head?
Steve Hutton has been a taxi driver with Radio Cabs for almost 20 years and explains that the Knowledge took him four years to pass. “It’s like learning your times tables up to a thousand,” he says.
“But I think it’s definitely helpful. Maybe it’s slightly over-the-top but taxi drivers should definitely have some idea of where they are going. Even I’ve got a Sat Nav, but it’s not great. It doesn’t always get it right.”
There’s a nifty edge to Steve’s driving. He’s sharp, calculated, on the ball. He doesn’t make mistakes, to the extent that he says he has “never been involved” in an incident. Steve compares his experience of studying the Knowledge to his academic degree, but should becoming a taxi driver really require degree level information?
Private hire company Addison Lee driver, Simon Webb, begs to differ: “It’s not as relevant as it used to be. For their standards it’s necessary, but some people will find it too difficult to pass and may look for easier avenues.”
Simon at one point describes the test as “too much of a slog” to pass, and understandably so. Many who embark on the journey fall short of the final hurdle and never qualify. Around 70 percent drop out in the first 12 months. Whereas A-Levels take a mere two years to complete and a degree is, on average, three, it took Fiona three years and three months to pass the Knowledge. Indeed, Michael Bailey from RMT London Taxi branch adds: “Currently it takes on average between 24 and 48 months.” Simon may be right, then – it’s 2016 and there are most definitely “easier avenues” for taxi drivers.
Najibullah Danishyar, who has worked as an Uber driver for six months, doesn’t see the point in the Knowledge. Pulling up in a signature Toyota Prius, the app-based private hire driver prepares to embark on his tenth journey of the day. He explains: “To become a black cab driver would take me another couple of years of doing the Knowledge and passing the test and then I would be doing the same thing as an Uber driver.”
Najibullah argues his case well. Uber, founded in 2009 and first initiated in San Francisco in 2011, requires drivers to pass no such exams or capability tests. To order an Uber, one simply has to request a taxi using their smart phone and a driver will be with them in a matter of minutes.
But does Fiona believe the black cab business is losing out to this new competitor? “I think it’s struggling, yes. The system isn’t fair. I worked hard for the Knowledge but it’s discredited because companies like Uber are so convenient.”
King’s Cross comes into view and Fiona gently pulls up aside the taxi rank. She carries a compelling air of professionalism acquired throughout her four years in the trade. Blonde spirals of wispy hair frame a wise, aged canvas.
“The Knowledge is vital,” she concludes. “I do enjoy my job and I really love what I do. I feel like I’m well trained to be doing what I’m doing. I can remember any London route. Although sometimes I forget the odd family member’s birthday!”