Street Smart London Cab Drivers

Steve Scotland thought he knew London like the back of his hand. The native Londoner had spent years working as a chauffeur, negotiating the city’s traffic-clogged streets.

So he quietly fancied his chances of passing ‘The Knowledge’ – the demanding test of London’s back streets and landmarks that confronts anyone who wishes to join the elite ranks of London’s cab drivers.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” Scotland says.

It was King Charles I who, in 1636, regulated London’s taxi service – the world’s oldest – by granting royal permission for 50 hackney carriages to ‘ply for hire’.

Dismayed by complaints from visitors at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that London cabbies didn’t seem to know where they were going, Victorian police commissioner Sir Richard Mayne made it a requirement that anyone seeking a cabbie’s licence be an expert on the city.

A candidate who mastered all the sample cab runs could be considered to have acquired The Knowledge. The precise number of runs has varied over the years; today there are 320.

Some things never change. The 4.7 km journey between Manor House Station on the Tube’s Piccadilly Line and Gibson Square in fashionable Islington remains the first Blue Book run that a would-be cabbie is expected to know.

“I started out very early one Sunday morning,” says Robert Lordan, a 33-year-old former schoolteacher. “It was eerily quiet. I felt as though I had the entire city to myself. I was full of excitement.” The run, he discovered, turned out to be gratifyingly easy to learn. “I drove it several times to make sure I was familiar with every turn and junction.” Then he moved on to the next run, and after that the next. “On average, I would spend three to four hours on each,” he says.

A student has to not only memorise the streets linking the two end points but also be intimately familiar with the back streets and landmarks within 400 m of those points.

“An examiner quizzing you on a run is never going to ask you anything straightforward like, ‘Take me from Manor House Station to Gibson Square,’” Lordan says. “He’ll always pick some address that’s just around the corner or a couple of streets away.”

Initial enthusiasm soon wanes in the face of the mind-boggling complexity of London’s streets. “For me, it was the intricate one-way systems and myriad dead ends in parts of North London, especially around Islington,” Lordan says. “They had me pulling my hair out.”

Eventually, he says, it all starts to make sense. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Suddenly you see it. You spend so much time on the streets and studying the map at home that it etches itself on your brain.”

A study by neuroscientists at University College London found that the spatial navigation part of the hippocampus (a region of the brain) found in the head of a London cabbie is significantly larger than the ones in the rest of the human population – a result of the intense memorisation and route-finding undertaken while doing The Knowledge.

Certainly, the hippocampi of London cabdrivers get a lot of intensive exercise. Every day David Greenhalgh, a 53-year-old IT specialist who’s spent the past two years juggling street explorations and his day job, recites at least 30 runs.

The process is known as ‘calling over’. The call over for Manor House Station to Gibson Square includes 12 specific turns or other instructions.

After the 320 Blue Book runs are memorised, the oral tests begin. The first tests are called 56-day appearances, given every eight weeks.

“The examiner asks you to do four runs,” says Greenhalgh, who’s made it through two 56-day appearances thus far. “Each run is worth ten points. If you get a perfect score of 40 – phenomenally rare – you get an AA grade and advance to the next level.”

Lesser scores are awarded A, B, C or D grades. Points are deducted for ‘hesitancy’. Making an illegal turn earns you a zero. If you score four grade Ds or after seven attempts you’ve not scored well enough to move on, the slate is wiped clean, and you start the 56-day tests all over again. This setback happens to as many as 80% of first-time The Knowledge students.

The next exams, known as 28-day appearances, come every four weeks and proceed along the same lines as the 56-day ones, only now the questions are even more demanding.

If you fail to advance after your seven appearances – ‘red-lining’ in the vernacular – you start your 28s again. Fail twice, and you go back to your 56-day appearances.

Eventually, if you persist, you reach your 21-day appearances. Scoring here is the same, only the questions and expectations are tougher still. The final hurdle is a one-to-one interview to show a good working knowledge of the outer parts of London.

Completing The Knowledge, and receiving the coveted green-and-gold badge of a London cabbie, is very emotional, says Lordan.

“I know I got quite teary. They tell me a lot of guys cry when they get their badge – you’ve invested so much of yourself into doing this, to reach the end is just incredible.”

Lordan’s victory came on December 22, 2009. Two nights later, he went out as a London cabbie for the first time, driving a cab he’d leased. Following a long-standing tradition, he told his first fare, a group of South African tourists, there was no charge.

Lordan and I are standing beside an old, green Victorian cabman’s shelter on Russell Square – one of 13 around the city where cabbies can rest, and get tea and bacon sandwiches. Parked nearby is the gleaming black cab he bought eight months earlier, and on which he’s already clocked 22,530 km.

“I love this job,” he says. “I’m always learning something new. As Samuel Johnson said, a man who’s tired of London is tired of life.”

© 2014 by National Geographic Society, National Geographic (August 2014),

After having a medical check and submitting an application form to Transport for London (TfL) which regulates taxis in London, he set off to familiarise himself with his city in a whole new way.

Nearly five years later, and with more than 16,000 km clocked on the scooter, Scotland is still at it. “I had no idea how tough this would be,” he says. “What I knew, or thought I knew, was nothing compared with what it takes to do The Knowledge.”

Forget Mensa and armchair brainteasers. The Knowledge of London is a real-time, street-level test of memorisation skills so intense that it physically alters the brains of those who pass it.

To qualify, you need to learn by heart all 320 sample runs in the Blue Book, the would-be cabbie’s bible. You will also have to commit to memory the 25,000 streets, roads, avenues, courts, lanes, crescents, places, mews, yards, hills and alleys that lie within a 9.7 km radius of Charing Cross.

Add to that the locations of some 100,000 landmarks and points of interest – pubs, clubs, museums, parks, monuments, railway stations, tube stations, hospitals, schools, police stations, government buildings, embassies, cemeteries, churches, theatres, cinemas – any place a fare-paying passenger might conceivably ask to be taken.

When asked, you’ll need to be able to calculate the most direct legal route between any two addresses in the entire 182 km² metropolitan area within seconds, without looking at a map, and be able to rattle off the precise sequence of streets and turns.

And you’ll have to do this consistently in a series of one-on-one oral exams, called ‘appearances’, until the examiners are satisfied that you do indeed possess The Knowledge.

If you ever find yourself in a London taxi, remember: your cabbie is a tried-and-true geography brainiac.

Even in this time of GPS and Google Maps, satellite navigation (Sat Nav) is no match for a London cabbie. In May 2014, The Guardian newspaper pitted a cabbie against a driver equipped with Sat Nav. The Sat Nav driver did the run from the newspaper’s office in King’s Cross to Big Ben, in Westminster, in 22 minutes; the cabbie did the return journey in 18, by taking a slightly longer route he knew to be quicker.

It’s not simply a matter of speed, cabbies say. A driver who relies on Sat Nav doesn’t know the city. Eighteen-year veteran David Styles points to the example of a passenger going to Victoria Station. “Depending on which entrance they want, they ask for The Shakespeare or Hole in the Wall. Show me a Sat Nav which not only has that database but can be programmed in seconds, and I’ll buy shares in it.”

Hail one of London’s iconic ‘black’ cabs (which nowadays can come in any colour) and tell the driver where you want to go, and by the time you’ve climbed in, he’ll have calculated the most direct, swiftest route, without looking at a map.

What if you’re not quite sure where you want to go? Say you have tickets to see The 39 Steps, but you can’t recall the name of the theatre. Just name the play, and your cabbie will take you to the Criterion on Piccadilly Circus.

For more than 150 years London cabbies have been required to be experts on their city. Victorian hansom cab drivers all had to bone up for the world’s toughest geography test, just as the roughly 25,000 drivers of London’s cabs must today.

The final series of tests, known as the ‘required standard’, or ‘req’ for short, is known among cabbies as the Nervous Wreck.

Indeed, Steve Scotland would have passed at his last appearance, had he not dropped his hypothetical passenger off on the wrong side of the street at the Moorfields Eye Hospital. “Just nerves,” he recalls.

As a result, he’s once more astride his scooter this Sunday afternoon, puttering along Great Swan Alley in London’s financial district. “A new restaurant has opened up around here, and I want to get it fixed in my mind – just in case,” he says. “You just never know what the examiners are going to ask you.”

Cabbie apprentices such as Scotland are Knowledge Boys. There are Knowledge Girls too, but fewer than 2% of cabbies are women. Cabbies come from all walks of life – students, tradesmen, lawyers. Most grew up in or around London, but people from elsewhere in Britain, and even a few foreigners, have successfully completed The Knowledge.

“I was studying biology,” says Osman Jamal Zai, 24, who left school and began studying The Knowledge. “This just seemed like a better idea, and I’m loving it.”

Although cabbies are cagey about what they earn, it’s accepted that incomes of £30-£35,000 are not unusual, with operators working extremely long hours believed to be making £50,000.

Aside from the money, the draw for many is the ability to set their own hours and achieve an enviable work-life balance. And unlike many cities – such as Paris, for instance, which imposes strict limits on the numbers of cabs – London is wide open. Anyone of good character can get a cab driver’s licence, as long as he or she passes The Knowledge.

While those who can afford to pursue the training full-time can complete it in as little as two years, most have to fit it in around work and family commitments. Five years isn’t unusual.

Only a small proportion of those who attempt The Knowledge will make the grade. “You can never actually fail,” Styles says. “There’s only quitting. You’re allowed to keep trying as long as you like.” The majority drop out during in the first year when they realise the amount of commitment that is involved.

“There are no shortcuts,” points out veteran Alf Townsend, 79, who did The Knowledge in 1962 and still drives his cab a few hours a day. “You can’t do it by sitting at home, memorising maps and street names, and hope to pass that way. You have to get out on the streets, putting in the miles, seeing and experiencing everything firsthand.”

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