Move aside Uber, London cabbies have it all mapped out in driver battles

In their fight against Uber, London's taxi drivers claim a distinct advantage: They must forgo GPS and navigate the huge city entirely from memory.
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Joe Pearson admits he wasn't the most attentive student. During his years in secondary school, the 24-year-old native Londoner spent more time messing around than paying attention.

There's a tinge of regret in his voice as he tells me his story, but a quiet confidence quickly replaces it. He'll need all the confidence he can muster, now that's he's studying for one of the most rigorous exams in Britain.

Hopeful cabbie Joe Pearson draws a run through London on a map at the Sherbet Knowledge School.

Hopeful cabbie Joe Pearson draws a run through London on a map at the Sherbet Knowledge School. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Pearson's goal is to drive one of London's 21,000 iconic black cabs. But first he has to memorize nearly every street and landmark in London as part of a process called the Knowledge. Put in place in 1865, the Knowledge exam requires cabbies to navigate between any two points in central London without following a map or GPS. It can take four years to learn the information and pass a series of stringent oral tests.

It's a grueling process unmatched by any training taxi drivers have to face anywhere else, and it's the most arduous thing Pearson's ever done. "My uncle was a cab driver and he encouraged me to give it a go," he says. "But I still didn't realize how hard it would be."

Despite the difficulty of mastering it, cabbies proudly defend the Knowledge as a critical part of their job, and as something technology can't replace. They say it sets them apart from ride-hailing services like Uber, whose drivers don't have to learn the Knowledge, and they believe it allows them to deliver a superior level of service. But ever since mapping apps arrived on phones and GPS-wielding Uber drivers exploded into London in 2012, the Knowledge has faced a volatile future. Should cabbies have to spend years of their life memorizing every inch of London when they can simply punch in a destination on a screen and be guided? Absolutely, say the drivers I spoke with.

Meanwhile, Uber continues to operate in London while it appeals a Sept. 30 decision by the city's transit officials to suspend its operating license. The formal appeal hearing won't begin until at least April 30, but even if Uber ultimately wins that battle, London's cabbies vow to keep the Knowledge relevant.

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Even with a map, navigating the maze of streets in central London isn't easy.

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Navigating London

Not many cities can match London's street geography. Forget the orderly grid that divides much of Manhattan. A map of London looks like someone dropped a pot of spaghetti on the floor. Roads meet at unpredictable angles, and something, whether it's a park, a building or the River Thames, is always getting in the way. At 607 square miles, London is also immense, and it's crammed with 8.7 million people all trying to get somewhere.  

Blame the hodgepodge on the fact that, since Roman times, London's urban planning has occurred mostly in fits and starts. As the city expanded and filled in, it never added a vast new section from scratch, like Barcelona's Eixample, and it didn't demolish medieval lanes, like Georges-Eugene Haussmann did in Paris in the 19th century. It's not that London didn't think about it -- after the Great Fire of 1666, architect Christopher Wren (of St. Paul's Cathedral fame) proposed redesigning the city with grand boulevards on a grid. But London rebuilt just as it was. Even today, some streets follow ancient Roman roads.

Three and a half centuries later, traversing the maze is core to London's identity and part of its enduring charm. London doesn't look like New York or Paris, and, really, why would you want it to? Getting lost while walking the winding streets around Covent Garden is all part of the experience of being here.

Asher Moses, CEO of Sherbet London, calls the Knowledge a fantastic education.

Asher Moses, CEO of Sherbet London, calls the Knowledge a fantastic education.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But when you just have to get somewhere -- like rushing to catch a train in a taxi -- London can be a baffling knot of narrow, one-way roads choked with traffic and street names that either change without warning or replicate many times. (Looking for Victoria Road? Make sure you have the right one out of the roughly 37 possibilities.) A map isn't just nice to have, but absolutely essential for getting anywhere quickly.

The Knowledge does more than provide a map. It cements the city's streets into a cabbie's brain. Instinct, rather than relying on an app or a tattered copy of the London A to Z atlas, lets cab drivers navigate the city quickly and efficiently.

Asher Moses, a cabbie of 28 years, is the CEO of Sherbet London, a Dalston-based company that rents taxis to drivers, manages a black cab fleet and arranges taxi ads. He credits the Knowledge with enabling him to see his way through London, almost like a reflex. "You've got the visual of London," he says. "You see the river the way it is, you focus and you know the closest line to get you where you need to go."

Knowing the Knowledge

The Knowledge was born after The Great Exhibition in 1851, when drivers of hansom cabs (horse-drawn carriages that preceded the modern taxi) couldn't find their way from Hyde Park, where the event was held, to anywhere else. Wealthy people were so annoyed that police officials started plotting the shortest routes between various points in London to prevent confusion.

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Charing Cross Theatre

Those routes (or runs) became the Knowledge and are still the basis of it. Learning the Knowledge starts with the "Blue Book," or the manual that lists the remaining 320 runs that potential cabbies need to know. (There used to be 500 runs, but the list was gradually reduced and revised over time.)

Each run connects two points, with Run No. 1 connecting Manor House Underground station in Hackney to Gibson Square in Islington. 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.

A 1979 film (and 2017 play) called "The Knowledge," which follows a group of hopeful cabbies under the eye of a strict examiner, makes the point. "Not that anyone has ever wanted to go from Manor House to Gibson Square," he barks. "But you have to know how."

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. Sherbet's students pay £35 per month (about $50 or AU$60) and can attend as many classes as they like. The school also publishes training manuals and guides.

Learning the Knowledge is a fantastic education, Moses says. "It opens the minds of people who weren't able to, in my view, study -- who never knew how to study."

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Riding a scooter through London while following a map is one of the best ways to learn the Knowledge. 

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"You have to be motivated," he adds. "Your characters change, your mind changes, your thought processes change because you've grown in your way to think and see things."

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 actually see those points," he says. "You can't feel it in a car. You have to get out and feel London, you know?"

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At each appearance, potential drivers can be tested on any of the 320 runs through London.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Pearson credits his scooter rides with pushing him beyond just reading the Blue Book. He's completed all 320 runs and puts in extra time working in the mornings as a courier delivering blood samples. "When I did the Blue Book, I thought I'd cracked it," he says. "But then you have to get out on a bike. It makes you see things a lot quicker."

Keeping up (at) appearances

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.)

The initial application fee is £120, but the entire cost of getting your badge is at least £844 in fees.

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A phone with a GPS app helps when learning the Knowledge, but it all starts with a paper, map, markers and a magnifying glass.

Kent German/CNET

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 25-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.

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Tony Norris, a taxi driver for 31 years, finished the Knowledge in just two years.

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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. "It's not just about knowing all your street names, it's about answering an oral question," he says. "I see how they'll deal with that type of examination"

As he talked, Norris leaned back in his chair in between sips of tea. Though it was only 4 p.m., the November light was already fading. 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. "No one fails the Knowledge, he says. "You fail yourself."

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.

Sherbet's Knowledge school occupies two temporary buildings in the company's taxi repair yard.

Sherbet's Knowledge school occupies two temporary buildings in the company's taxi repair yard.  

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Perry Coles, another Sherbet student, likens the experience to being in constant exam mode. "But unlike most degrees, there's no set reading material for each week," he says. "I don't think people realize how intense this is."

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. "You have to think of the shortest route," he says. "It may not be the exact route [the examiner] was thinking of, but if you're looking for improvement, they'll pass you through."

Inside one of Sherbet's classrooms Pearson studies intently for an appearance the next day.

Inside one of Sherbet's classrooms Pearson studies intently for an appearance the next day.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When I spoke to Pearson at Sherbet's school, he was studying for what he hoped would be his final 56-day appearance, the next day. The narrow classroom, which resembles a shipping container, sits next to a repair yard littered with taxi parts. 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. He'd already tried to move to the 28-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.

"[In an appearance] I try to pretend that I'm on my bike and hopefully I'm in the right mind," he says. "In that chair, you get only one chance. If you mess up, you have to wait."

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On any run through London you can't travel too far without making a turn. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Streetwise and more

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 -- 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks -- is more than mind-boggling. It literally changes a cabbie's brain. In 2011, a University College of London study found that the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory, had grown in cabbies that had completed the Knowledge.

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. Affable, with an eager smile, he peppers his story with London facts, like pointing to the pair of Pearly Kings who walk behind us.

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Mick Smith passed the Knowledge in 1989. He used his job making deliveries for a bakery to learn London. 

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"This is the best academic achievement I've ever done," he says, showing me his worn Blue Book from 1984. "That's why [cabbies] think it's the be all, end all. 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. Besides riding eight to 10 runs a day on his scooter, he used word association tricks to help him learn directions (WASP is an acronym for the four streets -- Walpole, Anderson, Sloane and Pelham -- that take you quickly from Chelsea to Kensington). He also studied the most obscure landmarks he could find.

"I was getting to the point where I was looking at tiny brass plaques on the wall, like the Soroptimist Society," he says, referring to the London-branch of the international volunteer society for improving the lives of women and girls. "I've never been asked to go there!"

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Most of the runs in Smith's Blue Book from 1984 are still in use today.

Kent German/CNET

Pearson admits to dreaming about roads when he sleeps and trying not to correct friends when he's catching a ride. "You have to take a day off sometimes," he says. "Otherwise it becomes too much."

The stress and commitment of learning the Knowledge is just one of the many bones cabbies have to pick with Uber. Instead of having to learn the Knowledge, the company's drivers have to pass only a topographical assessment, a far-less-demanding test that measures map-reading skills. Once they have their license, they're allowed to transport passengers through London using a GPS device.

"That's why cab drivers are so sensitive about the Knowledge and what they've been through and that it's being given away," Smith says. "I'm subject to more laws than anybody else."

Norris says the Knowledge will always win over GPS. Recently, he took two passengers to their destination after an Uber driver took them the wrong way. He resents being asked for directions by Uber drivers. "I tell them it will take me three years to explain it to you how to do it properly, OK? It's something that you have to learn."

Everywhere you look in Sherbet's classroom there's a map.

Everywhere you look in Sherbet's classroom there's a map.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Freedom and fares

Pearson isn't letting questions about the Knowledge's future steer him from his goal. He's been at it three and half years and hopes to finish in another year. Whether he eventually enjoys driving a cab isn't that important.

"I might get out there and not like it," he says. "But to put this much into it, there's no way I'm just going to give up quickly. Once I've done this, I hope it will be permanent."

Though cabbies need to rent or buy a taxi and pay regular fees, they can keep all the money they earn from fares. Pearson's eventual take-home will depend on how much he works, but with a £2.60 flat-rate base fare for any ride, black-cab drivers need to pick up only three passengers an hour to earn the national minimum wage of £7.50.

The money can be great, Moses says, but to him the ultimate payoff for passing the Knowledge is a sense of freedom not many other jobs offer. "A London cab driver can go to work, pull in front of a [train] station, and he can pick up a job," he says. "It gives you freedom, and the ability to earn very good money, and a good rate when you want to work, not when you'll have to be forced to work."

Read Part 2 of this series: A visit to a Knowledge school, how the Knowledge works, and how cabbies are adapting with technology.