This week could mark the beginning of the end for the black cab. This unique London icon, loved and loathed in equal measure, started its journey during the Commonwealth when Oliver Cromwell licensed cabbies. The modern cabbie can be traced to the dying days of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Victorian showpiece attended by over six million visitors, when it was realised that the local cabbies had no idea where they were going.
[I]t was then that a rudimentary test was introduced which transmogrified into The Knowledge we know today. This test of patience, perseverance and yes, knowledge can take up to five years to accomplish and thereby lies the rub. Years of lacklustre enforcement by authorities, Transport for London being the latest, has undermined the value of The Knowledge.
So what paradigm shift has occurred this week to mark the beginning of the end? This week the largest and most respected Knowledge school closes. In 1989 Malcolm Linskey started Knowledge Point the best known and by far the biggest of the Knowledge schools welcoming up to 350 students a year. Now demand has dropped to 200 and with the site due for redevelopment into – yes, you’ve guessed it – luxury flats, on Saturday the school closes its doors.
With a dropout rate of 70 per cent learning The Knowledge has always been for the committed individual, just the type who might enrol in a school. With an attribution rate that high and pupil numbers declining by nearly 50 per cent coupled with the statistic that there are three times as many cabbies over 70 as there are under 30 year of age, it’s no wonder that black cab applications are drying up. In addition with Transport for London issuing 150 private hire licences a day it is easy to see that the London cabbie is a dying breed.
Who would in their right mind study for 30 hours a week for up to 5 years and then invest in an expensive vehicle when a job – admittedly inferior – is there for the asking?
With the additional bonus that you don’t need to take a driving test; wake to find an enforcement officer checking your vehicle parked outside your house as you try to sleep; or face carriage officers patrolling the taxi rank making sure your vehicle is clean and roadworthy.
The inconvenience of manoeuvring a wheelchair into your vehicle, whilst anticipating a parking fine from an overzealous meter maid is negated as minicabs are not wheelchair accessible, and should you be adverse to animals, assistance dogs alongside you as you drive are a thing of the past.
With the number of black cabs plying for hire at its lowest for years it’s only a matter of time before they become a curious London anachronism, much like the red telephone box.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill – Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning for seeing a quality taxi service in London.