Tag Archives: London cabbies

The end of the road

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.

A look at life

Once in a while a nugget comes along which encapsulates the raison d’être of CabbieBlog. This 1960s gem gives an insight of a lost London: few cars; drab dirty buildings; and a commentary spoken in received English. It features one of the last Hansom cabs and a cabbie who made the switch from horsepower to motorised transport. It has Knowledge boys on push bikes, and if you are observant enough you might notice that the cyclists then, as today, ignore the Highway Code.

[A]n excellent Look at Life video clip from The Rank Organisation dated March 1960 looking at the London Taxi cab and learning The Knowledge. I think the featured image is of an 1950 Austin FX3 driving west down Mile End Road.


Hire today, gone tomorrow

Recently I went to see the summer blockbuster film Jurassic World. Coming out of the cinema it occurred to me that the film was a perfect metaphor for the demise of the London cab trade and with it what many regard as the gold standard for the world’s taxis. Thirty years ago there was no viable competition to the black cab and given its dominance customs and practices flourished in the trade.

[T]hriving cab ranks where punters outnumbered available vehicles. The Green Shelters, a perfect forum to voice opinions while taking a welcome break. The London Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) who translated those opinions into action, but in reality had little to do as the trade was self-governing.

The radio circuits run by members for their members. A plethora of small garages servicing the vehicles, not always cheaply, but always available on demand when a problem arose so you were soon back on the road, or back in the Green Shelter.

You had vendors selling all the sundries needed: signage, receipt pads, account books, coin dispensers. Selling maps to light bulbs, you name it, somewhere in his multi-pocketed waistcoat the man walking down the rank had what you needed.

Companies renting and servicing the meters; specialists in retailing only cab tyres, repairing gearboxes, or cab auto electricians. A host of companies obtaining advertisers needing to promote their company’s product on the sides of London cabs.

Knowledge Schools teaching the thousands who every year who applied to undertake studying, for what still remains one of the hardest to achieve in the world. And of course the manufacturers of the iconic black cab which has been sold around the world.

Seemingly overnight this industry, with its attendant suppliers of goods and services has collapsed.

Gone the way of Gamages, the red telephone box, Fleet Street newspapers, the London docks, much of London’s markets with their suppliers like Gardner’s disappearing, or the blue police call box now only seen in Dr. Who.

Once you could fill up with diesel in central London but with property prices soaring most have closed. Remarkably the Waverton Street station in Mayfair catering almost exclusively for cabs only closed a decade ago, the site must have been worth millions.

Unlike the dinosaurs our demise has been a long time coming – death by a thousand cuts if you like.

First the mini-cab, an old vehicle driven by someone with limited English and very limited knowledge of London’s geography. Usually with an aerial affixed to the roof, you had to be very drunk, or desperate, to use their services. Seeing an opening large companies supplied a complete ‘package’ to drivers; providing vehicles, satnavs, mobiles, and sometimes even clothing. Those companies at that time were very efficient at attracting accounts and proved to be the first real threat to the black cabs’ monopoly.

Rickshaws soon followed becoming a minor irritant, but never a realistic threat to one’s livelihood.

By now you would have thought that the trade, which by then had swelled to over 20,000 would become united and fight off the competition. Instead over half of drivers didn’t even belong to a trade association carrying on in the manner of cabbies in better times past.

London’s road network then started to be altered. The old ‘rat runs’ learned by rote on the Knowledge which gave us an advantage over less informed drivers were slowly blocked off due to pedestrianisation, cycle lanes, CrossRail or just at the whim of local councils. This meant that traffic was funnelled into the capital’s main arteries that any fool could follow.


The fatal blow has been the ubiquitous smart phone. Hardly surprising that we weren’t ahead of the curve as there are three times as many taxi drivers over 70 years of age as there are under 30 years of age. In fact in 2013 the average age for a cabbie was 52 among London’s Licensed Cab Drivers.

Today to meet the demands made by American app Uber, the London Cab Driver’s blog Taxi Leaks claims that Transport for London has issued 20-30,000 additional licences. While official figures make for grim reading. May saw a 50 per cent reduction in new cab registrations compared to May 2014 and it gets worse. The total number of drivers licensed fell again in May to 25,116, down 466 from May 2014. This means for the first time in a generation the trade is experiencing a net loss of 10 drivers a week.

The Office for National Statistics have said in the first quarter this year the economy has expanded by 0.3 per cent, you don’t need to be a student of John Maynard Keynes to realise that in London there are too many drivers chasing an ever smaller customer base.

We cabbies are on course to become a tourist attraction, much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic World, and not a vital part of the capital’s transport infrastructure.

Photo: Ms Sara Kelly Black cab scrap yard on Three Colts Lane near Bethnal Green overground station. This road has lots of Londo

Fit for purpose?

This week I was reading my Sunday paper. Usually the financial pages are littered with tales of people losing their life savings, the result of Ponzi schemes, junk bonds, or just fraud. So it came as a surprise to find nearly a full-page devoted to the demise of the London Licensed Cab Trade.

Most passengers have, at some time of another, received a tirade of the woes from their driver.

[I]n fact one common expression ‘The game is finished’ much repeated was actually written into Jack Rosenthal’s play The Knowledge. The demise of what is by some distance the finest cab service in the world has been predicted way before I joined the ranks. Reassurance from a Government minister as to the trade’s future were given in Parliament before most of our passengers were born:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr Dennis Vosper): The Home Secretary has, in fact, already made clear, in Answer to a Question on 15th March, that according to advice he has received, a procedure under which a vehicle could be hailed in the street and thereupon engaged for an immediate journey by means of a booking placed over a radio-telephone installed in the vehicle, amounts to plying for hire; and if that vehicle is not licensed as a taxicab an offence would be committed.

I am advised by the Commissioner that, so far as the Metropolis is concerned, if evidence is forthcoming that this procedure is being operated by unlicensed vehicles prosecutions will be brought. It is recognised that “plying for hire” is nowhere defined by legislation, but there is ample judicial authority which shows what kind of activity is within the meaning of this expression.

. . . ‘Nevertheless, it has been represented that the expected large increase in the numbers of these vehicles on the streets of London following the entry into this field of a major proprietor later this month will result in an undesirable state of affairs. It is argued that the licensed taxi service will inevitably suffer from such competition; that the presence of these additional vehicles on the streets will gravely accentuate traffic problems; and that their presence on parking sites in the central area while awaiting further instructions from their headquarters will result in a substantial withdrawal from the private motorist of the parking facilities at present available.

. . . My second qualification concerns the possible impact of the minicabs on the taxi service. The Government acknowledge that the taxi service bears a burden in the standards which are required in the construction of vehicles in the interests of the safety and convenience of passengers and the standards of knowledge which are required of drivers, and that; in return, they are entitled to some protection. This protection is provided by the ban which the law imposes on unlicensed vehicles plying for hire.

Hansard 7th June 1961
Col. 1352

This year is panning out to be the worst for business, whether you are a black cabbie or a licensed private hire driver. Every week you say to yourself it will get better with business booming (or so we were told in the run up the election) and with tourists flooding into London.

It wasn’t until last week, according to Vicki Owen in her Mail on Sunday article that the rumours circulating around the trade seem to have been confirmed.

Boris Johnson, concerned about traffic flows for his precious cyclists and not the livelihoods of tens of thousands of drivers (both black cab and private hire), garages, ancillary services, radio circuits, confirmed to LBC Radio a 18 per cent increase in licensed minicabs. Transport for London is allowing 250 extra minicabs on to London’s streets every week; and in addition Uber is recruiting 1,200 new drivers a month.

We had heard rumours of many drivers returning their badges and leaving the trade, in fact taxi license renewal applications are down 20 per cent on last year. It would seem even Transport for London employees are not immune from the cut-backs. The number of applicants looking to commence The Knowledge has fallen more than two-thirds this year, therefore fewer examiners are required in the future.

It would seem that the hon. R. J. Mellish, MP was correct when he opened the Commons debate with these words:

The subject which I wish to raise is of paramount importance to many thousands of men who earn their living as taxi-drivers in London. We expect that the Minister when he replies to the debate will make a statement which will relieve them of their anxieties. I think that there may well be a serious position on the streets of London unless the right hon. Gentleman is clear about what he has to say.

I will explain the story for the benefit of those who have taken the trouble to stay and listen. I speak for over 10,000 taxi-drivers in London and I am also putting forward the views of many owner-drivers. I speak, also, on behalf of proprietors of taxicabs. It is unusual for me to speak on behalf of employers, but I am doing so on this occasion. There is a united view on this matter, not only among the owners and drivers but also among many hundreds of thousands of workshop staff and clerical workers and people employed in ancillary industries associated with taxicabs.

It just seems to have taken over half-a-century for his predictions, with a little help from Transport for London, to come to fruition with the demise of London’s cab trade.

Female London Cabbies

What is it really like being a female black cab driver?

Clegg Gifford interviewed Stella Wood to find out what life is like as a female cabby

Earlier this month, Clegg Gifford interviewed Stella Wood to dig deeper into the tips of the trade and find out why she decided to become a black cab driver. Fewer than 2 per cent of black cab drivers are women and intrigued by this statistic.

[C]legg Gifford sought to find out whether there were any issues that held women back from working in the black cab trade. Here are their findings.

Stella has been a black cab driver for 14 years and first decided to embark on ‘The Knowledge’ when a friend requested that she do it with her. Stella subsequently enjoyed ‘The Knowledge’ although at times found it tiresome and long-winded. She found the benefits of choosing her own working hours highly appealing though, especially as she had children who were dependent on her.

Stella typically works the night shift, starting at around 5pm and finishing at midnight or sometimes later. She often works weekends when business is more lucrative. Asked whether she’s ever felt intimidated, she answers that she doesn’t, but occasionally has uneasy feelings about some of the passengers who get into the back of her cab. On the whole though, she feels safe in her job and exercises caution. The flexible working hours more than make up for any negative aspects (such as the difficulty in arranging social meetings with friends who work regular office hours).

If you’d like to read the full interview with a female black cab driver then you can do so by visiting the Clegg Gifford blog. Clegg Gifford is a Lloyd’s broker and was founded in 1967 and has been arranging taxi insurance for over 40 years under the ‘Westminster’ brand name.