The Knowledge is a proud tradition that has played no small part in making the London taxi service the best the world can offer. It is far more than its principal part of ensuring the London taxi driver can find his way anywhere around this city.
It creates a commitment to the service and its rules. The badge has no monetary value to anybody but the girl or guy that works their cods off to obtain it because unlike in most other major cities around the world, it cannot be bought and sold like “cab plates”.
The badge is paid for in blood, sweat and tears, overtaking the life of a “Knowledge Boy” in such a way that often costs friendships and even wives and families. Something won that hard is not given up lightly. That is why, unlike our PH cousins, we enter the trade as a long-term, often life-long commitment.
The personal value to the owner of a badge is what makes our trade so easily policed; drivers don’t play hard and fast with the rules. Compare this with the PH trade, who gain their licence by buying a lucky dip and finding a licence inside; well nearly! But 6 weeks for a PH licence and 5 years for a green badge is no comparison.
That goes a long way to explaining why TPH enforcement has grown in tandem with the growth in PH drivers since PH licensing began 21 years ago. Look at the known sexual assault figures. Pick any month since PH drivers were licenced and there will be more sexual assault convictions than there have been among taxi drivers in the last hundred years.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The Knowledge began in 1851, a year after the Met took over as the trade’s regulator. K candidates made their appearances at New Scotland yard (that’s the old, old New Scotland Yard).
In 1919, appearances were moved to “The Dungeon” at Lambeth Road, which remained where K boys were “tortured” until 1966. The Dungeon was easily found by the number of push-bikes parked against the walls outside. This was the way the K was done in those days; riding around the city on a push-bike.
Despite this, it took just an average 13 months to complete the K.
The trade had grown post-war and through the mid 60s.Ordinary folk with disposable income were now using taxis regularly, rather than for special occasions. The Yanks came with their big tips and all-day tours as a result of their money travelling so well because at the end of the 60s the fixed exchange rate ended and the value of the dollar doubled overnight from 4 to 2 dollars to the pound: hence the reason we used to call 5 bob a dollar for those old enough to remember pre-decimal currency.
Thus, the job became more lucrative for drivers than it had ever been and this had a serious effect on the number of people wanting to become Green Badge holders and the K grew rapidly.
The testing centre changed to the new building in Penton St in 1966. By the late 70s the PCO were finding it hard to cope with the number of K candidates. Back at The Dungeon and up until the late 70s, K boys went straight onto “28s” and were almost all running around on Honda C70s and C90s by this time, rather than push-bikes. Toward the end of the 70s though, the first two 28s had become effectively “56s”. These 56s then became official but almost immediately turned into “90s” unofficially for the first two appearances.
Nevertheless, the average time to complete the K was 27 months. Being an old git, this was my own time for the K, from early 1978 to late 1979. I went through 3 C90s. The first was totalled when a car pulled out in front of me, sending me sailing over the bonnet. Write-off! The second came to an end when the chain snapped and wrapped itself around the back wheel at 30mph. That was a laugh! The bike stopped dead and I kept going. Another write-off.
Eventually, the 90s were made official. Then the Blue Book runs were reduced to 320 runs from 400 – odd. Next came a system where candidates were given the Blue Book and instructed to complete it and then apply for an appearance within two years and finally the written test and codified scoring was introduced. The K just kept on growing.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
There was a bump in the road when PH licensing was introduced but the real problems began with the introduction of the Apps; or rather the trouble started when the regulator shirked its responsibility to regulate and properly apply the PH Act to them. In 2003 when PH drivers were first licenced, there were 24,000. The Apps took hold by 2014 and by the time Covid hit, there were more than 110,000 of ‘em.
Who was going to spend 5 years doing the KOL when they could be plying for hire on the street with a Satnav and App in 6 weeks? Even if the PH driver earned 25% less than a taxi driver, the latter would still have to work for 12 years before catching up to the PH driver’s total earnings over 17 years!
BY 2018, the KOL numbers were down to just over 660 and by 2021, the figure was down to 221 and Covid can only be partly blamed for this. We have a quarter of drivers over 60 years old and they are not being replaced. For several years we have been consistently reducing our total number by more than 20 drivers per week.
Looking at a longer trend, the number of taxi drivers has reduced by 21% since June 2017, from 24,302 to 19,587. The fleet has reduced by 31%, from 21,230 to just 14,789, although this is due to a number of factors, including Covid, that you are all aware of.
This is great in the short run as we are all very busy; at least for those of us that have a cab to drive. In the long run though, this will be disastrous. We need to rebuild the fleet and driver numbers. All TFLs advertising and tweaking the system will not solve the problems and nor will a “quickie KOL”.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION
The KOL needs an overhaul. The reason the scoring system was put in place was to sort out the time problems with the KOL; well that time has doubled to a current 63 months to complete. Maybe it is time to go back to the old system, where very experienced examiners didn’t have to rely on a points system. Does anybody know a driver that passed out of the old system that didn’t deserve to? I don’t.
I do know that under the current system, candidates fail to answer the scoring questions and then when the pressure is off, they call over like a seasoned cab driver. Yet, they don’t score anything. I would venture that the average cab driver was never academically minded and couldn’t wait to get out of school. Yet, to become a cab driver they now have to go back to a school exam system that many are not equipped for, even though they can do the KOL capably. When I did the K, the likes of Mr. Finlay and Mr. hedges absolutely knew if you had been working or not.
The real problem lies elsewhere though. As mentioned above, the trade will continue to die on its feet, even though we are currently busy, unless the regulator re-establishes the distinction between the taxi and PH trades.
PH need to be forced to return to a genuine pre-booking system. That means genuinely contacting the operator rather than using an app to select a car that is nearby. There is nothing wrong with an operator using an app to take bookings nor a driver from using a satnav. However, there has to be a digital wall between the customer and driver until the operator dispatches a job and there has to be a significant time elapse – at least 5 minutes – between ordering a car and its arrival at the pick-up.
If not, long-term TFL have to decide if they want a taxi service or not because in the long run we cannot survive with a regulator that doesn’t regulate properly nor able to run an efficient KOL system providing replacement drivers for those drivers leaving.