Recently, I arranged for a taxi to take me to an evening event. Having called early in the morning, I didn’t anticipate any problems, but when the time set for my pick up passed and no cab was in sight, I dialed the company’s number to see what had gone wrong. The reply I received was curt. They were running behind schedule and I’d have to wait. As that wouldn’t work for me, I cancelled the ride and drove myself to my destination, despite my anxiety about driving after dark.
In New York and other large cities, cabs are as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. I’ve had the pleasure of hailing them in various locations around the globe. My particular favorite for cab riding is London. There the taxis are roomy and the doors open from front to back which makes them easy to enter and exit. London drivers seem to enjoy their work more than most and take a healthy pride in it. No doubt that’s because driving a cab in London isn’t a job. It’s a profession that can garner a driver as much as $100,000 a year. But first the driver has to gain “The Knowledge.” (“Masters of Memory,” reprint from National Geographic.com, reprinted in The Week, Oct 10, 2014 pgs. 40-41)
“The Knowledge,” is a grueling set of oral and written exams that take place over one or two years as the candidates learn the streets of London in minute detail. Only 1 in 5 ever completes the training and goes on to earn the badge that gives him or her the right to become a London cabbie. As one recent graduate admitted, “It’s a very emotional moment when you realize you’ve done it and get that handshake from the examiner.” (Ibid pg. 41)
The coveted handshake means the driver has memorized over 320 runs and has taken a battery of tests. The first test is called the “56-day appearance,” which is followed 4 weeks later by the “28s.” Four weeks after that there is another tier of tests until the final which is ”the 21-day” appearance.
Given the hurdles London cabbies have had to overcome, it’s understandable that they are up in arms about a new breed of public transportation: the Uber driver. Uber drivers use their personal cars to chauffeur passengers around London and claim “The Knowledge” is no longer necessary because of electronic mapping. But in a recent challenge between London cabbies and Uber drivers, those electronic street maps proved to be unreliable. Current information wasn’t available because uploading takes time and lags reality. In a city like London, a new restaurant opens almost every day, or city workers blockade an avenue unannounced to make repairs. Street wise cabbies drive the byways every day. They know how to avoid bottlenecks and use little known backstreets and alleys to beat traffic. In the competition between them, Uber drivers lost to those with The Knowledge every time.
That London cabbies could beat technology heartens me. As marvelous as machines and electronic gadget may be, it’s comforting to know that human ingenuity still prevails.