Plan Insurance Blog

Will ‘The Knowledge’ for Black Cabbies be “Dumbed Down”?

With London cab driver numbers dwindling the trade faces an existential crisis. Is an overhaul of “The Knowledge” the best route forward for this proudly, iconic and fiercely traditional industry?

Black taxis are part of the fabric of the city. This is, in large part, due to their encyclopedic knowledge of London’s streets, picked up by studying and passing ‘The Knowledge’. Introduced in the 19th Century, The Knowledge requires drivers to memorise 25,000 streets and 100,000 landmarks within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. Hopeful London Cabbies have to pass up to 12 interviews, which takes approximately four years.

In today’s world of GPS, Waze and Google Maps, should it be that difficult for cabbies to pass The Knowledge? Do cabbies really need every street in inner London memorised? Or is a more general understanding and knowledge of the city more appropriate for black cab drivers in 2023? Will that encourage new entrants into the trade and help keep numbers bouyant?

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The numbers of black cabbies are dwindling

This is a timely issue, as there are now thousands fewer black cabbies than before the pandemic. In fact, the number of new applications for black cab licences dropped by almost 95% in a decade, from 3,484 in 2011-12 to just 221 in 2021.

The falling numbers have prompted Transport for London (TfL) to conduct an official review. Some members of the taxi trade, alarmed by the drop in new entrants, have expressed a desire to reduce the time it takes to get behind the wheel.

Is the exam too long, or is it too hard?

Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, pinpointed a potential cause of the problem, suggesting the modern education system doesn’t prepare young people to learn in the ‘parrot fashion’ required by the Knowledge. Thanks to technology, critics believe that this type of learning may now be irrelevant.

This view is echoed by others in the industry who are calling for a rethinking of The Knowledge. They believe that this change could enable trainees to pass in two years instead of four. This suggestion has come as a response to the fact that the current method of learning feels alien to the younger generation.

The Knowledge, with its in the era of horse-drawn cabs and almost four decades before petrol-driven taxis is steeped in history. Its rigorous demands have shaped the knowledge and skills of black cab drivers for generations. Despite this, many believe we can respect the history of the profession while adapting to massive changes to the profession over the last 100 years.

The feat of learning and memorising is impressive, but is it necessary today?

The cognitive demand of mastering London’s streets has resulted in a fascinating side-effect: black cab drivers have an enlarged hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory. As impressive as this is, can drivers be as competent without memorising every street in London? The answer remains to be seen.

This debate is further fuelled by a report presented to the taxi industry and TfL. The report, commissioned by FreeNow, analysed a year’s worth of rides provided by the 10,000 black cab drivers on its platform. Surprisingly, it was found that a high proportion of journeys were to a very limited number of destinations.

Maybe today’s black cab drivers don’t need as wide a knowledge of London as they once did. Many trips that would have been done by black cabs are now done by Ubers, Bolt, FreeNow and other ride-hailing or minicab apps.

McNamara believes the cabbie’s skills are still relevant in 2023

Even though McNamara supports changes to the Knowledge, he insists that the review is not about reducing standards or diminishing the unique skills of London’s cab drivers. He firmly believes that an in-depth knowledge of the city is crucial, particularly when driving in central London, where quick decision-making and local knowledge are important.

However, McNamara acknowledges the legitimacy of GPS usage in London’s outer suburbs, advocating for a ‘less intensive’ approach to the detailed knowledge required for certain areas. He has criticised the outdated requirement to master the entire six-mile radius around Charing Cross, a regulation based on a map created in Victorian London.

Many believe the future of the industry is bright

The call for change isn’t solely driven by educational debates. Mariusz Zabrocki, general manager of FreeNow, is confident that the sector could accommodate thousands of additional drivers without compromising their earnings. Zabrocki asserts that the main issue isn’t the work ethic or intelligence of the younger generation but the rigorous testing of the Knowledge.

Industry insiders have noted a robust recovery for the black cab trade since the Covid-19 pandemic, with many drivers’ earnings increasing. Yet, a steady decline in driver numbers, as the annual churn rate continues to far exceed the volume of newly qualified cabbies, threatens this renewed vibrancy and long term sustainability.

Dumbing down is not a helpful or appropriate phrase. Streamlining to improve relevancy in the modern age is perhaps a more suitable description and one that importantly is likely to sit better with the paying public. If the time required to qualify can be halved but continue to encompass 90% of journey requests it is probable that it will be accepted as a logical, justifiable measure by consumers.

Perhaps the option to pursue “The Knowledge” fully in its current state could remain an option for those applicants that passionately want to achieve the highest standard. There could also be a method to distinguish cabbies who completed the longer version of the qualification, so that potential customers looking to go further afield have the option to select them? Its a highly emotive subject and we welcome a healthy, respectful debate, one that looks to achieve a positive outcome for the trade in the long term.

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