London Taxi Drivers Have All the Knowledge

London taxi drivers have the best reputation. New Yorkers grumble about seeing no empty taxis in the pouring rain despite a mass of yellow hurtling down the avenues. Frustrated San Franciscans create startup taxi companies, one with cars wearing pink mustaches on their front grilles.

Londoners are spoiled. Taxis are spacious, drivers are courteous, English is spoken, baby strollers and wheelchairs are welcome, and London taxi drivers know where they're going. Boy, do they ever!

This makes them some of London’s best tour guides as well as drivers. In fact, some taxis, such as London Black Taxi Tours, London Taxi Tours, London Cab Tours and London Tours by Taxi, focus on giving guided tours of city sights. If you know the rigorous steps to becoming a London taxi drive, you’ll see why their knowledge of the city is unparalleled.

Got a question?

What's the best way to Alexandra Palace when traffic on the North Circular is at a dead halt? Where is the unmarked stage door for the Royal Court Theatre? Taxi drivers know which airlines fly from which terminals and the days and times for changing the guard at Buckingham Palace. They know where to find the Courts of Justice, where Sir Paul and Sir Elton live, and that the Adam & Eve pub is not in Adam & Eve Mews.

A London cabbie may need to get a confused passenger to Victoria Embankment, Victoria Mews, Victoria Crescent, Victoria Square, Victoria Terrace, Victoria Lane, Victoria Gardens, or Victoria...There are 77 variations on Victoria in the London Streetfinder, and they're spread all over the map.

In the know

Licensed taxi drivers’ All-London Knowledge test is encyclopedic and dates back to the days before GPS and Google searches. In order to pass the test, a driver must know 320 different routes covering almost every square inch in the 113 square miles within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross Station.

Those routes can take you to 20,000 places including shops, restaurants, offices, schools, churches and 25,000 streets. Applicants can’t pass the license test unless they know the absolute shortest routes to destinations, and that means smack to the front door. A typical exam question at an oral appearance: “Describe the way from Highbury Vale Police Station to the British Medical Association” — without any street addresses.

Big investment

Given that London is a sprawling city of 241 square miles, studying for the exam typically takes two to four years. Compare that city size to Manhattan at 23 square miles or San Francisco at 47 square miles. Most of the 25,000 taxi drivers who have passed the All-London Knowledge have studied by investing in a course at a knowledge school — a scooter for months of buzzing around London cramming as they go.

Drivers must pass the practical driving and written exams. In addition, a London taxi driver must acquire the skills for mounting and dismounting wheelchairs, ensuring passenger comfort, maintaining their cars and keeping passengers safe. They also learn the Highway Code, the rules of the road for drivers on British roads.

Drivers must renew the All-London, also called the Green Badge, license every three years. Those who want the Yellow Badge to drive in the suburbs must learn at least one of the nine surrounding sectors and then drive only within its borders. The good news is that drivers get to be their own bosses and set their own hours.

Noteworthy knowledge

About 700 to 1,000 drivers pass the exam every year, although 7,000 register as students during that period, according to Transport for London. The London licensing requirements, which have been around since 1851, are so entirely different from other major world cities that one of the knowledge schools indicates it’s been covered by "The Apprentice," The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the BBC, The London Times and other television and print media. No wonder. Could The Knowledge be new alternative to college?

by Laurie Jo Miller Farr

Top: A black taxi cab makes its way over Westminster Bridge in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Left: Flags and cabs line The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)