Farewell to the knowledge

With GPS we can all navigate like taxi drivers. So does it spell the end for the professionals? Ed Caesar reports
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The Independent Online

They chat non-stop, know exactly where they're going, and guarantee to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. They know when there's traffic ahead, and remember all sorts of sneaky little back routes. But is the hard-learnt ground-level acumen of the seasoned taxi driver, known as The Knowledge, about to be replaced by route-finding mapped from the skies? Could the Global Positioning Systems (or GPS) that claim to be the ultimate driver's accessory become the nemesis of the licensed cabbie?

They chat non-stop, know exactly where they're going, and guarantee to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. They know when there's traffic ahead, and remember all sorts of sneaky little back routes. But is the hard-learnt ground-level acumen of the seasoned taxi driver, known as The Knowledge, about to be replaced by route-finding mapped from the skies? Could the Global Positioning Systems (or GPS) that claim to be the ultimate driver's accessory become the nemesis of the licensed cabbie?

"No way," chant the cabbies, almost in unison, when I ask five of them if they have installed GPS in their cars. The very question seems an affront to their topographical manhood. But I do detect a mood of uncertainty among the drivers around the Russell Square taxi shelter about the technological developments that threaten their way of life. Do any of their friends own them? "Nah," they say. "Too expensive."

But the cabbies can't entirely ignore the fact that regardless of cost - anything between £200 and £1,000 - GPS systems could be seen as a shortcut through the lengthy process by which they usually obtain their licence, which takes, on average, two to three years for a London taxi driver to earn and is only achieved after a comprehensive examination of the driver's ability to navigate any street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. Hours of unpaid study, as well as the difficulty of remembering 400 routes between various points in the city centre and its immediate environs, lead to a high drop-out rate: somewhere between a third and a half of all trainees. Those that do stick with it have an exemplary grasp of their patch, and rightly consider their profession as a career, rather than a short-term job. Surely this lengthy study period will be made redundant by GPS, which will offer The Knowledge without the graft.

"I've tested all of them [GPS systems], and there aren't any that can react as quickly as a licensed driver," says Bob Oddie of the London Taxi Drivers Association, who suggests that no computerised system can take the place of a cab driver who thinks on the move. He also points out that, while a driver is punching in the details of his journey, valuable time is lost, meaning higher fares and delays on already congested city roads. Sat-nav systems are also slow to react to diversions; drivers with The Knowledge can adjust their route at a moment's notice.

And it's not simply the ability of the cabbie to get from A to B that colours our popular wisdom about them. The Knowledge is far more than mere navigational skill; it is a test to ensure that the driver understands every point a passenger might wish to pass along a particular route. As one driver from north London tells me, "Learning a route's like learning a song, word for word. And there's 400 of them." The training is so comprehensive that black-cab drivers, scientists recently discovered, develop bigger brains. When I tell onehe might have an unusually large hippocampus (the part of the brain we use to navigate), he drily responds: "My wife been telling stories about me again?" You don't get that banter from a GPS.

But not everyone wants banter, and every day new advancements make GPS a more efficient, quieter alternative to the cabbies we love or loathe. Even Roy Ellis, the chairman of the Public Carriage Office, which grants licences to prospective taxi drivers, admits that times are changing. "We've had an external report done on these systems, and the upshot is, they work. They're good." Problems concerning delays or traffic-congestion response times will be ironed out in time. Voice activation, more complex traffic-prediction software, and route organisers with greater flexibility are all imminent developments. So what will become of The Knowledge?

Ellis discusses the introduction of a topographical test for London's private-hire drivers that would be, he imagines, "nowhere near as tough as The Knowledge", but this is yet to be confirmed. With more sophisticated technology on the horizon, it's easy to see nationwide licensing authorities reconsidering how much taxi drivers actually need to know. Presumably, black-cab drivers could also take the watered-down test by 2006. A drop in standards would precipitate a rise in numbers applying for a licence, and the crowded London taxi market might become saturated.

It's a problem Ellis and the PCO would be powerless to tackle. "We put no cap on the number of people who we give licences to. If they're good enough to earn their badge, they should have it. We let market forces decide how many cabbies are out there."

The GPS debate masks a greater vulnerability that sits at the heart of the licensed taxi trade. One cabbie who has been driving for over 30 years complains that, over the years, everyone has taken a chunk out the taxi industry: - minicabs, couriers, delivery vans.Particularly in London, cabbies have seen a sharp decrease in their earning potential over the past few years, as running a cab grows more expensive.

Gerry, a cabbie with four children, outlines the costs that accompany a career as a self-employed taxi driver. Everyone must buy and maintain their vehicle: a basic taxi costs £34,000 before tax, and even if one chooses to rent, it is still at £150-£200 per week. With the average daytime earning rates of a taxi driver between £10-£20 per hour, with meter rates, licence fees, maintenance, tax and diesel still to come out of that, it is easy to see how taxi driving is far from lucrative. And this earning potential comes only after three years of study and application of The Knowledge. As Gerry says, "It's a living, but it's not the living it was."

For now, taxi drivers are getting by, even if a career in a licensed cab feels less secure than in the past. While GPS systems are enhancing the possibilities for taxi drivers outside the capital, they are nowhere near sophisticated enough to compete with the common sense and detailed knowledge of the London black-cab driver. That could change, though. Between the Transport and General Workers Union and the city authorities, a solution needs to be found if a solid career as a licensed taxi driver is not to become a thing of the past. At present, GPS can only do so much; there still needs to be a committed professional at the wheel. And, as any cabbie will tell you, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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