The road less travelled

It has now become the norm for local authorities to close roads for weeks, months and even years on end to allow private developers to get rich quick (well in the current economic climate not quite so quick) to the detriment of council taxpayers and just about everyone else.

This trend was started by Westminster City Council when a few years ago they closed off the south side of Berkley Square and then followed with their piece de resistance, the closure of Edinburgh Gate, along with large swathes of public highway around Scotch House.

[I]f you were thinking that we had reached the limit of audacity that even the property developers and local councillors thought they could get away with, then you would be wrong. There cannot be a cab driver in London who has not, at some time in the last few months, been stuck in the catastrophe that was until recently the Aldgate gyratory system.

This is by far the single worse traffic scheme to be imposed on London since some idiot decided it would be a good idea, to allow a few backpackers and economy tourists to eat their packed lunches in the road outside the National Gallery, closing off the entire north side of Trafalgar Square.

At Aldgate the surrounding areas of Whitechapel and Spitalfields are now gridlocked for virtually the entire day and the queue of stationery traffic spreads throughout all the small residential streets around this area.

The Aldgate East gyratory was built in the Seventies but has been criticised ever since for creating a ‘racetrack’ mentality among motorists, terrifying pedestrians and cyclists. The word racetrack in this context is a euphemism for no traffic jams, and about the only road left in London where you can travel at 30mph.

Under an £8 million engineering scheme due to take the rest of the year,

Whitechapel High Street will be returned to two-way traffic.

Braham Street, which runs parallel with Whitechapel High Street to the

South will be transformed next year. Pavements will be widened and a new entrance to Aldgate East Tube station will be created.

The project, overseen by Transport for London, is being funded by developer Tishman Speyer, which plans to build a commercial development at the eastern end of Braham Street. In return, the company will be given the parcel of land, currently the highway, free.

This commercial development, which will no doubt remain empty just like the dozens of others within a few hundred yards, is being built on what was a public highway. Even after The Great Fire of London much to the annoyance of Sir Christopher Wren, people rebuilt their houses on the same footprint so the road layouts remained untouched.

But now quite how somebody ‘buys’ a four lane stretch of public highway has yet to be explained, but it’s happened. What next? Why not close the Victoria Embankment under the guise of making it more pedestrian friendly and then sell it off to build a mile long block of luxury flats with river views?

In Praise of the C90

So you’re thinking of starting The Knowledge and are making a list of essentials:


Map check; Pen and paper check; List of routes across London check; Book of places to find check.

But there is one essential that no self respecting knowledge boy (or girl) can do without: A Honda C90.

Stick a clipboard on the handlebars, affix a map to it and you’re away.

So successful are these bikes that the Honda Cub is the most successful motorcycle model in history, with more than 60 million sold worldwide this little bike has made a huge contribution to Honda’s sales and profit. Honda used the slogan ‘you meet the nicest people on a Honda’ as they broke into the English speaking world (say that to a Knowledge student on a wet Sunday afternoon). It’s hardly surprising so many have been sold, with its simple 4 stroke engine, and only the most basic of controls, Honda have produced a machine that’s cheap, reliable, and easy to repair. As long as you keep the oil topped up (as learned to his cost) this bike seems to go on forever.

But the beauty for your Knowledge student lies in the bike’s manoeuvrability. Stop anywhere while checking a particular place, you don’t obstruct the traffic. Hey! You don’t even have to worry about the gears, its automatic. With its neat little white box behind the seat for sandwich/thermos (you’ll certainly need that) and other essential paraphernalia.

Believe me, a day spent on The Knowledge you could easily travel 100 miles, all for less than one gallon of petrol.

These machines work everywhere: London in the rain, in Delhi sometimes with 2 or 3 passengers, and in the heat of the African desert.

Knowledge students sometimes put clipboards the size of a kitchen table on the handlebars; I have even seen some with reading lights attached to assist night study.

But these ubiquitous little machines have the road holding of a blancmange balanced on ice, brakes with the efficiency of a child’s tricycle and can go from 0-60 in about 5 minutes with a tailwind. But the worst fault of all is they are invisible to drivers of 4x4s. These cretins of the road think these machines are push bikes and pull out in front of you as you travel at 30mph towards them, and they do not hear you coming, as one courier with a 400cc bike once said to me “you need a bit of noise to wake up those bastards”.

But for all its faults, your humble C90 will be still in production long after other volume car manufacturers have consumed all the Government handouts thrown at them and then gone bust taking their debt with them. Just like DeLorean.

One last tip: Get some warm clothes it’s bloody cold on a C90!

Is that Marble Arch Tom?

Is that Marble Arch TomTom?

It looks like L’Arc de triomphe to me

TomTom (so good they named it twice)

In order to earn your license to operate a London Black Cab, a taxi driver has to pass a gruelling examination known as ‘The Knowledge’ which involves memorizing every street and location of public buildings within a six mile radius of Charing Cross.

[O]n top of this, we have to know some 320 specified routes through the city that include all the points of interest within a quarter of a mile of the endpoint, and know this off by heart. Think that is tough enough, well there is more: all the major routes in and out of the London suburbs need to be memorized as well. And to pass The Knowledge, and get that coveted license, we have to pass a rigorous exam which includes reciting a precise route from any two points that the examiner fancies. No wonder it can take at least three years to pass, and often very much longer. If you see people on scooters with a clipboard and map attached to the handlebars driving around London, chances are they are doing The Knowledge which can involve travelling up 26,000 miles across the City on our Honda C90’s memorizing those thousands of places of interest, all the one-way streets, no right turns, landmarks and street names.

When I did The Knowledge little did I realise that as time moved on every postcode would also have to be committed to memory. It’s these SatNavs that are to blame you see we Cabbies are constantly given only postcodes as our customers’ destination. So why do we bother with The Knowledge? After all, GPS based SatNav systems are cheap and plentiful and know all this stuff without requiring us to look like the world’s oldest pizza delivery boy. The private taxi companies, known as minicabs in the London have long since realized this. The biggest and most successful firms all have SatNav in their cars, yet according to the London Taxi Drivers’ Association less than 5 per cent of Black Cab drivers are using these devices.

Yet I cannot help but think we London Cabbies have it right: we know the streets better than just about any SatNav device. We don’t try and drive the wrong way up a one way street, we don’t think we should turn left even when it’s obvious the car isn’t going to fit down that alleyway, and we don’t get stumped when a roundabout has been constructed that isn’t yet on the map. More importantly, and this includes even the new breed of device with traffic reporting built in, we know instinctively to avoid a certain street at a certain time because a different route will be quicker.

What’s more, we know that you can get from A to B quicker via C today because of all the road works and temporary traffic lights springing up everywhere.

The truth is that there is more to getting around a city like London than simply knowing the street map, local knowledge is King. And if someone produced a SatNav system with mapping that was up to The Knowledge standard I would not only buy it, I would invest in the company as well. As long as it does not start lecturing me about politics and sport along the way, that is.


Now TomTom take me to the Texas Legation Memorial please and be quick about it.

PS It’s in Pickering Place SW1 just in case you wondered.

My Enlarged Hippocampus

London Black Cab drivers are renowned
for being ultra-brainy.

We are expected to memorise the routes of up to 25,000 different roads in the capital, along with places of interest, important buildings, miscellanea, and we are not given a licence until we’ve have demonstrated we have ‘The Knowledge’.

And boy, can we talk politics and solve the world’s wrongs!

[W]ith 70 per cent of trainees dropping out along the way and some Knowledge ‘boys’ taking up to five years to qualify. Although your blog author only took 4 years 10 months and 13 days, but I wasn’t counting!

Scientists have now discovered that cab drivers have a strong internal sense of direction that in many people is absent. The scientists found the brain area known as the hippocampus was larger than average in cabbies.
This area of the brain starts firing neurons like mad as their cab driver owners ruminate on what route to take from A to B.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust put dozens of cabbies in a brain scanner, asked them to play a computer game recreating London streets and then analysed their brain activity.

“The hippocampus is crucial for navigation and we use it like a ‘satnav’,” Dr Hugo Spiers of the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience at University College London told the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool. “London taxi drivers have powerful innate satnavs, strengthened by years of experience.”

He identified three types of cell behind the satnav effect: place cells map our location, direction cells tell us which way we are facing and grid cells how far we have travelled.

In addition, it is said that if you can drive in London, you can drive anywhere. One notable London cabbie was Fred Housego an ordinary working-class London Taxi Driver who won the BBC TV programme Mastermind, normally populated by posh lecturers and civil servants, with his amazing memory for random general knowledge, and his ability to memorise his chosen subject for study.

A recent study also found that an enlarged hippocampus might be the reason why people with dementia might not show signs of the condition. “A larger hippocampus may protect these people from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease-related brain changes,” announced Deniz Erten-Lyons, MD, with Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, at the American Academy of Neurology 60th Annual Meeting in Chicago.

happy-cab4So you see CabbieBlog has an amazing brain compared to the rest of humanity, or has Alzheimer’s and is unaware of it . . . now where DID I put my glasses!

A Sign of the Times

Road Sign Montage England has roads that are built to be safe with good surfaces, consistent lane widths and good visibility at junctions, but that is where it ends. Forests of metal poles supposedly warning the driver of death-risk hazards have sprung up everywhere. Signs that direct you to the right destination are fine but in other respects our streetscape has become a disgusting expression of bureaucratic excess. Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland & Melton, published a Private Member’s Bill in December 2006 which he had hoped would give local authorities duties to reduce the visual impact of street signs and traffic calming measures and to publish policies on ensuring that highways developments are in keeping with local surroundings. In his forthcoming book he estimates that there are well over one million unnecessary road signs in Britain.

[H]e goes on to say: “These signs are the result of the worst examples of official inertia. Highways departments take the rules, and then over implement them. A guideline or regulation that says that a sign ‘might’ be required is usually put before a committee, which decides that it ‘must be used. ‘Oh dear,’ the committee members fret, ‘We might be sued if we don’t put the sign in.’ Even the tiniest bend in the road is assumed to need a warning sign to avoid the risk of the local council being taken to court if someone drives into a hedge.

So, here is the start of a list of signs that could safely be removed without any detrimental effect on the nation. On any main road, roundabouts are announced by large green directional signs that provide route information. You can tell the sign relates to a roundabout because, not surprisingly, the image looks like a roundabout. So why do we need, in front of it, a red-edged triangular sign warning drivers they are approaching a roundabout? Take all the triangular signs away.

When nearing a set of traffic lights, whose coloured bulbs glaringly inform you that there are traffic lights ahead, why must we have a series of red-edged triangular signs with a picture of traffic lights on them? The whole point about traffic lights is that they are designed to be seen.

Perhaps the greatest explosion of useless metalwork is caused by the number of blue roundels marking a cycle path. Keep the cycle paths but get rid of those ghastly signs. There is no need for them. If it is a shared pavement, just a stencil on the ground can mark it out.

Arguably the worst signs are those that say ‘New Road Layout Ahead’, or any such supposedly temporary red signs that, under current regulations, should remain in place for a maximum of three months, most stay for much longer, some even for years. Only a few councils have a proper system for removing them after their ‘temporary’ life span and such a widespread display of neglect and incompetence is a sad reflection on local authorities’ attention to the standards we all deserve.

Our roads into the capital are shaming. The Finchley and Holloway Roads are a national embarrassment. Such was the lunacy of Transport for London under Ken Livingstone that red route signs have been fastened to a post or lamppost every few yards for mile after mile on the roads into our capital city.

New signs come in; yet old ones remain. One layer of signs is planted in front of another, creating obscurity and confusion. A lack of initiative at Government level, over-design by highways engineers and contractors, and the fear of litigation all combine to make our streets ugly and confusing.

Get rid of this street clutter. Uproot it all now.”

Thanks to Alan Duncan MP for permission to reproduce this article.