Is The Knowledge Under Threat?
They're an iconic and much loved mode of transport with a rich history, but recently it seems like London's black cabs could be under threat. With competition from rideshare and private hire firms on the up, and a declaration from a high court judge that black cabs are "devoid of inherent distinctive character" paving the way for a new generation of eco cabs, the future of the black cab seems rocky.
It's not just the exterior of black cabs that might be about to change forever either, but the brains behind the wheel too. Late last year, the Greater London Authority Conservatives criticised "the knowledge" - a rigorous test that all the capital's black cab drivers must pass - calling it "archaic" and "a major barrier to recruitment" in the face of modern technology like GPS navigation.
On top of this, one of London's most respected "knowledge schools" has recently and narrowly avoided closure, supposedly prompted by a rise in rideshare companies and rising rents in the capital. With this in mind, could the knowledge really be nearing extinction?
What is the knowledge?
London's cabbies have traditionally been required to be able to determine the best route to any destination in the city almost immediately. That means no checking maps, no asking for directions, and certainly no robotic voiced Sat Nav systems. No, in order to get from A to B by the most logical route possible, cab drivers in London have to pass the knowledge, a geographical test that it can take years of practice and research to pass.
The knowledge was first introduced in 1865, and hasn't changed too much since then. In order to obtain a black cab license, prospective drivers must pass at least twelve oral "appearances', testing their memory of 320 set routes, 25000 roads, and features like hospitals, tourist attractions, theatres, courts, railway buildings, parks, cemeteries, embassies, and pretty much any landmark you could think of.
Part of the training involves driving a moped around the city and memorising set routes, and usually lasts around 34 months. The whole learning process is so intense that studies have shown that the hippocampus - the part of the brain responsible for spatial memory - is significantly larger in taxi drivers than the general population. It's no wonder that the knowledge has been called one of the most demanding occupational training courses in the world.
Why is the knowledge under threat?
There isn't one simple reason for the potential threat posed to the knowledge, but the most obvious one is the competition posed by rideshare apps. Uber in particular is often singled out as being the cause of the potential decline of the capital's black cab trade, and not entirely without justification either. Since the launch of the app in 2012, knowledge schools have reported the number of students undertaking the test has declined. Knowledge Point, an Islington based knowledge school recently saved from closure, reported a decrease of 150 students over the space of a year, with around 200 students enrolled in training in 2015 compared to 350 in 2014.
Although it's easy to single Uber and its competitors out as the source of all the black cab industry's woes, it's important to consider why drivers might choose to work for the rideshare app over getting a black cab or minicab license. It could simply be that in a world where Sat Nav and Google maps are de rigueur, the prospect of memorising the each and every way around an entire city by heart is simply too daunting. Before Sat Nav, the only realistic way to get around will have been to memorise routes off by heart (unless you were up for fiddling around with a huge map every time you picked up a fare). However, easier alternatives do now exist, and who's to blame taxi drivers for turning to them?
When put this way, it almost sounds like the knowledge itself is a threat to the black cab trade; something that in 2016, new drivers just don't have the time, patience, or even money for; after all, the training process is almost a full time job in itself.
What's the big deal?
Whilst the easy GPS navigation and less strenuous licensing process offered by rideshare companies might seem like a plus to new drivers, some believe that they could be acting as negatives for customers. Research released by Addison Lee shows that in 2015, a 56% increase in new taxi vehicles took place on the streets of London, which coincided with a 10% rise in journey times, and thus increased fares for customers. Addisson Lee have suggested that these stats are largely the result of an influx of new rideshare drivers taking to the streets, who perhaps rely too heavily on GPS navigation. Commenting on the statistics, Addison Lee's chief executive Andy Boland said "Our drivers and passengers have been telling us that London congestion has been getting worse and that journeys are taking longer. Now we have the evidence. At busy times, some parts of the capital are literally grinding to a halt.'
With this in mind, it's perhaps not the difficulty of the knowledge that's the issue, but the ease of becoming a rideshare driver. Whilst it's certainly true that ex-private hire and even black cab drivers have chosen to work under the Uber name, if drivers who are entirely new to the industry choose the quickest way to getting a license, then it's reasonable to suggest that the service they offer won't match up. In these kinds of cases, the availability of Uber drivers might seem like a convenience for customers, but the reliance on Sat Nav and lack of knowledge of the best routes to take could be a detriment.
In summary, the potential decline of the knowledge seems to just be a case of the old and the new clashing. Whilst it's hard to deny the appeal that really knowing a city and it's streets has, it seems as though the next generation of London's cabbies are likely to find their knowledge in a Sat Nav.
Whether it's you or your Sat Nav that's in the knowledge, why not take a look at our range of taxis for sale today.