The black London cab is a symbol of London. In movies, the sight of a black cab, red telephone box or red double-decker bus firmly sets a scene in England’s capital.
Black cabs in their current form first appeared on the streets on London in 1902, replacing horse drawn ‘hackney carriages’ that had served Londoners since the 17th century. It’s important to note that only licensed black cabs are allowed to pick up passengers on the street; mini-cabs (often large saloon cars) must be pre-booked, by phone or by calling in to the company’s office, but they are forbidden by law from picking up passengers who have not pre-booked.
Modern black cabs tend to be air-conditioned and are designed for easy access by disabled passengers. They’re not necessarily black, as the drivers can earn extra revenue by allowing advertising. All have a small white plate at the rear confirming that the cab is licensed and yellow light at the front, above the windscreen, signifying whether the cab is available for hire. If you don’t see a yellow light at the front don’t bother trying to hail it, it’s already booked.
The main thing that differentiates London’s black cabs from cabs in other cities is their drivers – the Cabbie. They are often talkative, opinionated, and entertaining, and are required to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s streets.
This is known as the ‘Knowledge of London’ or more commonly ‘the knowledge’. Drivers are required to know the details of 320 routes covering 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. The examination takes the form of the candidate talking the examiner through the route, which turns they would take and which landmarks they would pass.
To prepare for ‘the knowledge’ prospective drivers spend years driving the streets on small motorcycles, they can usually be recognised by the clipboard on the handlebars as they drive the exam routes. Most drivers take 10 to 12 attempts before passing ‘the knowledge’ and, in several televised challenges, the London cabbie has proved faster than modern SatNav systems.