Drivers of London's iconic black taxis are over Uber

Andy, a former chemical engineer, is studying 80 hours a week ahead of the memory test mandatory for taxi drivers in London. "I speak five languages, I’ve got two degrees, and this is easily the hardest thing I’ve done."

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
Drivers of London's iconic black taxis are over Uber - NewsMavens
London's cabbies wait for passengers. Photo: Unisouth/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why this story matters:

Uber claims to employ 40,000 drivers in London. There are 22,500 black taxis, one of the city’s most characteristic icons. Driving an uber requires downloading an app. Driving a taxi requires five years of studying maps and memorizing the peculiarities of the capital’s famously anachronistic streets.

In September, London’s transport authority announced that it would not be renewing Uber’s operating license. Transport for London said that the company’s approach to background checks on its drivers and other regulatory lapses demonstrated a "lack of corporate responsibility" that put Londoners at risk.

While the storm against Uber in London settles, the UK capital's black cab drivers, known as "cabbies", work towards the Knowledge, the notoriously challenging memory test that has been a requirement in London since 1865. The Knowledge, sat by generations of taxi drivers, is a tradition in stark contrast to technology giants like Uber.

Dozens of people, almost all men, study at the Knowledge Centre in Islington North London, one of 11 training locations across London.

"I’ve been told it's like going to university and getting a degree," said Tommy, who has been studying for the test for years. "But at the end of it, you get a job."

Many of the candidates sitting the Knowledge are dismissive of Uber and share the view that passing the test puts a driver in a privileged and even elite position among the capital’s transport workers.

Some of the black cab trainees take issue with Uber's policies and standards.

Andy, a former chemical engineer who started training for the Knowledge two years ago, says that Uber has emerged to meet a demand but should obey regulations. He is studying 80 hours a week ahead of the examination. "I speak five languages, I’ve got two degrees, and this is easily the hardest thing I’ve done."

"If I have a grief with Uber it's not about them providing a service it’s about them having no standards whatsoever and not paying taxes," he says.

Despite the Knowledge demanding a lot of time and money, the candidates here are willing to commit, confident that this "iconic" status will survive the challenge presented by Uber.

Details from the story:

  • London’s transport authority announced in September it would not renew Uber’s operating license due to a "lack of corporate responsibility" that put Londoners at risk.
  • Uber has been operating in London for five years and is the city’s largest private hire company. It claims to employ 40,000 drivers in London.
  • There are 22,500 "iconic" black taxis in the capital.
  • Cab drivers in London study for years to pass the 'Knowledge', a notoriously difficult exam that has been a requirement in London since 1865.
  • More than 2,000 people are currently studying the Knowledge in 11 Knowledge schools across London.
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