For the past 150 years, London black cab drivers have been walking, talking (and occasionally swearing) navigational systems, successfully delivering passengers to their destinations since G, P and S were just three more letters of the alphabet. And the reason these cab drivers have such an extraordinary command of London’s nonsensical tangle of 25,000 streets is because of The Knowledge, a beyond exhaustive process of memorizing every single one of those streets, a course of study that has been called “the hardest test, of any kind, in the world.” But Uber could bring an end to that tradition, replacing years of work with an iPhone and a Garmin.
The Knowledge Point — London’s oldest training school for cab drivers — is closing, and its founder is blaming both Uber and the astronomically high rent prices in the capital. Malcolm Linskey, 70, says that ever since Uber arrived in the city, the interest in his classes has dropped. There used to be a line of eager would-be cabbies waiting to get into his classroom; now there might be a few dozen students. He told the Financial Times:
“Demand has gone down since Uber arrived. Usually we have 350 students enrolling a year, last year it was 200.”
Becoming an Uber driver might seem like an attractive shortcut, one that eliminates the need to spend three or four years (no, really) learning The Knowledge. Black cab drivers are required to know all 25,000 streets that fill the six-mile radius extending from Charing Cross. They spend hours, days, months tracing 320 common routes on laminated maps and driving every potential combination of streets, roads, bridges, tunnels and alleys on scooters (The New York Times said that one potential driver covered 55,000 miles on foot and on his scooter while he learned The Knowledge — the equivalent of two trips around the world). That could be why only between a quarter and one third of applicants ever complete The Knowledge and earn their coveted green badges.
Last month, a court ruled that Uber was legal in London. The app had been challenged by black cab drivers who said that Uber was being used as a taximeter, which only black cab drivers can have — their reward for all of those years of stuffing their brains with street signs. But the court ruled in favor of Uber, its drivers and their GPS devices.
Still, some drivers hope that passengers will see the appeal of the black cab over an amateur Uber driver. Brian Nayar, a cab driver and teacher of The Knowledge, told NPR:
“I drive a London taxi, but I’m also an ambassador for this great city that we work and live in, and you can’t get that from a GPS.”
The Knowledge Point is scheduled to close in December, when it will be torn down so luxury apartments can be built on the site. There will be 10 remaining Knowledge schools in London.